Mental Health Monday: Life in the Shadows

41oQ25EdH5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As I continue editing my 50+ blog posts about caregiving for my mother, who has Alzheimer’s—hoping to turn them into a collection of essays for publication—I’m also reading an inspirational book. The New York Times bestseller, Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, is a fictional account of an orthopedic surgeon’s decline with Alzheimer’s. It’s also a murder mystery. Brilliant book.

Since I’ve titled my essay collection Tangles and Plaques (read this post to see why) I was excited to see LaPlante’s use of those terms in her book:

This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An un anesthetized patient.

Every death of every cell pricks me where I am most tender.

Ouch. LaPlante’s book is difficult to read, but I can’t put it down. Especially since she’s combined the psychological aspects with a murder mystery. Who killed Jennifer’s best friend Amanda?

It’s also interesting to me that LaPlante’s protagonist, Dr. Jennifer White, was raised as a Catholic, and her most prized possession is an icon of Saint Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of lost causes.

Alzheimer’s. Murder mystery. Icons. I’m only halfway through the book, but every page contains treasures.

Faith on Friday: Traveling to Paris

Paris terrorMy husband and I have made plans with another couple to visit Paris in the spring of 2016. As I mentioned in a previous post, we’re trying to decide whether or not to get travel insurance, in light of the recent terrorist attacks. We still haven’t decided. But the bigger question would be whether or not to cancel the trip altogether. It’s not a question I’ve seriously entertained, as this has been on my bucket list for many years.

A friend just sent me an email with this excerpt from a Rick Steves Facebook post about visiting Paris post-terrorist attacks. It blessed me so much that I’m going to share it here:

“Hello there Rick Steves!

My name is Amber, my family and I are currently vacationing in Paris for a week with your Paris 2015 guidebook. We’ve seen all of the museums, monuments, and art we’ve wanted to see. We LOVE doing your ‘walks’ from your app! Paris is such a beautiful and historical city! We’ve loved every minute of it. I’m sure you get tons of these messages, but I wanted to thank you. Thank you not only for your awesome books but for the Facebook post on terrorists and traveling you posted a week ago.

We were scheduled to leave for Paris the Wednesday after the horrible tragedy that took place, and we suddenly found ourselves wondering if we should still go. Is it safe? What might happen to us? My heart was broken for the people of Paris, but we’re traveling with our two teenage daughters. Safety suddenly became a big concern and we had the hardest time making a decision.

Your post really touched me and helped me put things in perspective. My husband and I both agreed we would not let ourselves be ‘terrorized’ and we would go and have the amazing Europe trip we planned. And boy am I so glad we made that choice!

The city is like none other. And the French people have been so kind to us. Yesterday we toured the Eiffel Tower and watched the sun set from the top with both our girls. It was a moment we will never forget. It was so beautiful, I shed a few tears. I’m so glad we made the choice to come, and to be able to have these wonderful experiences together as a family.

As we made our way back to our flat, we boarded the metro, and started discussing dinner ideas. A nice French businessman was sitting next to my 12 year old and must have over heard her talking. He asked her, ‘Do you speak English?’ She said yes. He said, ‘Are you American? Did you come here from America?’ And she said yes again. Then he put his newspaper down and said to all of us, ‘Thank you for coming to visit Paris. Despite what happened. We are a strong city. I hope you have a wonderful stay.’

I was so moved! This city has witnessed such horrible evil, not too long ago. And they have not let it stop them from living their lives. I see it every day in the cafés, couples and families sitting together conversing, laughing, and most importantly… Living. It warms my heart. We will definitely always keep traveling. Au revior!

The Revis Family”

I spent some time this morning reading many responses to his recent blog post, “Travel to Paris After Attacks.” There’s lot of debate about statistics—people arguing over whether or not the Paris attacks were random, etc. What’s missing from all the comments—both on Steves’ blog and his Facebook page—is any talk of faith. As a Christian, faith should play a part in every decision I make. Faith doesn’t mean making uninformed or foolish decisions. But it does mean trusting God’s protection once you’ve made informed, wise decisions. So, whether or not we decide to purchase trip insurance, our peace of mind as we travel to Paris next spring won’t be based on statistics. It will come from a mindset of refusing to live in fear. By God’s grace.

Mental Health Monday: Dealing With a Weight-Loss Plateau

weight-loss-graph-plateau

It’s been almost three months since I started this diet. (See “Counting Calories” from August 31.) The good news? I’ve lost 12 pounds. And I’m learning things about myself every day as I continue this 1000-calorie discipline I’ve chosen.

The not-as-good news? I’ve hit a weight-loss plateau. Without going over my calorie budget more than one or two days (and then only 200 calories over) I can’t seem to keep those pounds coming off. Thankfully, I haven’t let it send me into a serious funk, which always leads to binge eating or drinking. But I’m ready to see those scales move again.

So today I did a little research, and the article I found most helpful was “Getting Past a Weight-Loss Plateau” from Mayo Clinic. It seems that I’m burning muscle along with fat… muscle that keeps my metabolism going. What do they recommend?

To lose more weight, you need to either increase your physical activity or decrease the calories you eat. Using the same approach that worked initially may maintain your weight loss, but it won’t lead to more weight loss.

Not what I wanted to hear. The article went on to say that they don’t recommend going lower than 1200 calories, which is what I’m actually eating, since I subtract 200 calories for every 20 minutes I spend on the elliptical machine. Here’s what Mayo says about that:

Rev up your workout. Increase the amount of time you exercise by 15 to 30 minutes and possibly the intensity of your exercise to burn more calories. Adding exercises such as weightlifting to increase your muscle mass will help you burn more calories.

So, as I’m approaching the 3-month mark in my diet, my plan is to work out on the elliptical for 40 minutes/day rather than 20. Just long enough to watch a one-hour TV show without commercials. I see a Law & Order SVU marathon coming on!

turkey going to beachOnly problem is we’re headed to the beach for Thanksgiving… no elliptical machine in our condo. So my alternate plan is to walk for one hour/day on the beach. And enjoy fresh seafood instead of cornbread dressing and desserts. It helps that I’m not cooking all my favorite dishes this year. Have a great week everyone!

Faith on Friday: A Stranger and You Did Not Invite Me In

8428913My dear friends, Nawar and Reem Mansour gave me a beautiful gift a couple of years ago. It’s a volume of icons of the Mother of God, written by William Hart McNichols, a priest and icon painter who lives in Taos, New Mexico. The icons are accompanied by poems written by Mirabai Starr, who also lives in Taos and leads retreats on the connections between teachings of the mystics, contempolative practice, and social action. (You can watch Mirabai reading one of her poems from the book here.) The title of the book (which is also the name of one of the icons inside—the one Mirabai reads is the video) is Mother of God Similar to Fire. The icons and poetry are both breath-taking. (I did a post about the book in February of 2012, here.)

I picked the book up today because I wanted to turn my heart towards the Mother of God in preparation for the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos (Mother of God) into the Temple, which Orthodox Christians celebrate on November 21. We will have Vespers for the feast at St. John Orthodox Church in midtown Memphis tonight and Liturgy tomorrow morning at 10 a.m.

Back to the book. It’s no coincidence that the gift-givers (the Mansours) are from Syria (Nawar) and Iraq (Reem). They know firsthand the horrors of the wars in the Middle East. And so the poems/prayers in the book have even more meaning.

 

Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations

Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations

As Americans argue over whether or not to let Syrian refugees into our country, I pray to “Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations” with the words of the poet: (excerpts only as I do not have permission to reprint the entire poem)

Holy Mother of all people,

erase the lines we have drawn to separate us,

nation from nation,

tribe against tribe.

Melt our frozen hearts….

Safe in your embrace,

how could we hold onto any concept of “other”?

…that your message of peace and justice

may penetrate the troubled minds of all leaders….

 

 

Mother of God She Who Hears the Cries of the World

Mother of God She Who Hears the Cries of the World

And then I turn to the “Mother of God, She Who Hears the Cries of the World”:

 

Mother of Mercy,

the cries of the world keep me awake at night….

Give me the courage to follow the crumbs of heartbreak

all the way home to the place where I can be of real service.

 

I pray these prayers not only for myself, but for our leaders who have the power to make decisions that affect thousands, if not millions, of lives. I ask the Mother of God to give me—and those leaders—courage. Because isn’t it fear that pushes us to shut our borders to those who are escaping from the terrorists?
How will we answer when God says to us, “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in….” (Matthew 25:43)?

Greece Migrants

 

Writing on Wednesday: The Marketing Plan

MU-Press-gifts-2Many writers don’t enjoy marketing. I love it. I did a good bit of advertising and marketing before I became a serious writer, so it doesn’t feel like a chore to me. When I received my contract from Mercer University Press for the anthology I’m editing (and they plan to publish in 2017) I was beyond happy to see their marketing plan.

I went to work completing the author’s questionnaire and marketing form, which is now up to 11 pages and I’m not finished yet. Some of the information I’m asked to provide:

50-word biographical sketch, like you might see on the back jacket of a book. (This is harder than it sounds, to write your bio in 50 words. It makes you focus on what’s most important about yourself as relates to the book.)

Précis of your book. This is another 50-word challenge, trying to express the major ideas and the central contribution your work makes.

Book description. In 250 words (much easier!) describe your book as if you were writing a book jacket or promotional piece for potential readers.  I had fun with this part.

marketing planAudience. What’s the target market for which the book is intended? This was also easy—women, and men who love women. (I expanded on that a bit for the form.)

Competing books, and what makes this book different? I had found two anthologies with similar themes, which I enjoyed reading. In comparing them to my book, I was able to focus more intensely on the book’s purpose.

Advance readers and blurbers. I am fortunate to have found five published authors who have agreed to write blurbs for the book. I’m still working on a list of potential advance readers.

The questionnaire continued with requests for contact people at bookstores, newspapers, and online and print journals who will receive press releases and requests for interviews and readings. I was happy to list contact people I know personally at 9 independent booksellers in six states! Next came book festivals, writing conferences and trade shows I hope to attend with many of the contributors to the book.

How exciting that the press requested this information sixteen months prior to the book’s publication date. I’m sure I’ll be sending them updates between now and then, but it feels terrific to have a marketing plan beginning to develop so early.

And now for the hard part. Along with the contract, I received a copy of the press’s guide to their style for publishing. It’s a supplement to—and sometimes a replacement of—the Chicago Manual of Style. As I read through this document with a view towards editing the eighteen new essays for the book, organizing all 23 essays into thematic sections, writing an introduction, and correctly formatting the permissions information for the 5 reprints being used in the book, I took a deep breath. The essays are due to me by the end of December, and the edited and organized manuscript is due from me to the publisher by the first of March, so I’ll only have two months to complete this work. January and February are good months to stay inside, right?

I’m over the moon happy to be working with the good people at Mercer University Press. And now, whether you are a writer or a reader or both, you know a little bit more about what goes into birthing a book. Stay tuned….

Mental Health Monday: Trip Insurance

Travel-Insurance-2

 

I’ve traveled all over the world with my husband, but I’ve never been to Paris. So next May we’re going on an “immersion” trip with another couple (and a small group). We’ll be staying in apartments just outside the city and taking daily excursions without having to unpack and move from place to place. Perfect.

Paris. When the recent terrorist attacks happened there, in addition to the overwhelming sorrow I immediately felt for the victims and the whole city and country, I also felt a wave of discomfort about our upcoming trip. Would we be safe there? My husband travels internationally fairly often, speaking at medical meetings. He’s been to India and China several times. Those trips always make me a little nervous. But who would have thought that Paris would feel like a potentially unsafe destination?

At our church’s women’s retreat this past weekend, a woman asked our speaker (who is from London) a question about forgiving our enemies, in light of what had just happened in Paris. The speaker had just talked about how loving our enemies is “the measure of our likeness to God.” A hush fell over the room when he said this. He talked about how Christ prayed for those who crucified Him, even while hanging on the cross. We talked about what “our crosses” were and what it meant to truly love our enemies. Could we possibly love the terrorists who murdered all those people in Paris?

landscape-1447521825-gettyimages-497133514

 

That’s an ongoing spiritual struggle. Meanwhile, on the practical side, my husband and I got out the brochure about trip insurance yesterday afternoon to read the fine print and decide whether or not we needed to invest in some protection. One of the events covered in the brochure is “Trip Cancellation/Interruption Due to Terrorist Incident.” Who knows what the odds are that another attack would happen in Paris while we are there? But the cost of the insurance relative to what we would lose if the trip was cancelled is relatively small (about 10% of the trip cost) so I think we’re going to make the investment. We’ll be purchasing a bit of financial peace of mind. Will we be worrying about our safety while we are there? Possibly, but as a friend pointed out recently, if terror can strike as randomly as in a church prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, there’s no “safe place.” (This friend was in Tunisia when the beach massacre happened this summer.) For people of faith, our “safety” is only in God’s will. Prayer is the best trip insurance.

Faith on Friday: Fish Heart, Liver and Gall

The New Guy gave a wonderful homily at church this past Sunday. To set the stage for his words, I’ll tell you that one of the topics I discussed with him in our meeting last week was fasting. I struggle with all the rules that seem so random. Or maybe it’s not the rules but the way they are followed in modern times, when, for example, lobster (shell fish) is okay to eat on fasting days but cheap mac and cheese (dairy) isn’t. I sort of get the whole thing about not eating meat, but it falls apart as I work my way down the list of foods the Orthodox Church guidelines recommend fasting from during certain seasons: meat, meat products, fish, dairy products, oil and wine.

Father Phillip reminded me that it doesn’t have to make sense. That it’s about obedience.

I guess our children, when they are young, don’t understand the rules they are asked to obey either. But they learn something from obedience.

Tobias and the Angel by Shane Crabtree. graphite with ink and acrylic paint on paper

Tobias and the Angel by Shane Crabtree. graphite with ink and acrylic paint on paper

So on Sunday Father Phillip told a story from the book of Tobit (in the Apocrypha.) It’s really a love story about Tobit’s son Tobias and his wife Sarah. But it’s also a cautionary tale. At one point the angel Raphael, who is traveling with Tobias, instructs him to cut open a fish and take the heart, liver and gall and put them in a safe place. How random were those instructions? But Tobias obeyed, and the fish heart, liver and gall came in handy later in the story. The liver and heart were used to cast out a demon, and the gall (bile) was use to cure Tobit’s eight years of blindness.
There’s something about the gall curing blindness that I can’t quit thinking about. Maybe it’s a metaphor for our own spiritual blindness and how obedience—especially to things we might not embrace—can heal us.

 

Anyway, I’m thinking about these things today as I prepare to attend several talks at a women’s retreat at our church tonight and tomorrow. Our speaker is Dr. Christopher Veniamin, a professor at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. His topics are “The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation: ‘Theosis’ in St. Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex,” and “On Becoming Theologians: ‘Hesychia’ as a Prerequisite for the Encounter with God.”

 

Born in London, England, Dr. Veniamin is a spiritual child of Elder Sophrony of Essex, who was a spiritual child of St. Silhouan, so he has a strong personal connection to the men he learned the wisdom from—the wisdom that he will be sharing with us.

 

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), also known as Elder Sophrony, was best known as the disciple and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite and compiler of St Silouan’s works, and as the founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, England. My husband and I visited this monastery in England in 2009, and the nuns and monks there are very devoted to Elder Sophrony’s memory.

 

A few weeks ago I read this quote in my Orthodox calendar. It’s from Archimandrite Sophrony. I’ll close this post with these words: (an excerpt)

Everything  that you gain in your inner battles will be reflected in your life in God. Struggle against every passion which arouses in you critical thoughts about others. Do not accept what the enemy suggests to you against someone who is unjust towards you…. When grace is with us we do not see the defects of others; we only see the sufferings and the love of our brethren.

I can embrace a struggle to love and forgive others.

And in my struggle with fasting, I just read Fr. Stephen Freeman’s (an Orthodox priest in Oak Ridge, Tennessee) latest blog post, “Why We Fast,” which had some helpful information.

But the bottom line is figuring out whether or not I can embrace obedience. Even if I’m asked to cut open a fish and save the heart, liver and gall.

Stay tuned….

Writing on Wednesday: Favored Nations

indexAs I continue putting together a collection of essays for an anthology, I’m learning new things about the publishing world. Four of the 22 essays in the book are reprints from previously published material by well-known authors. The press I’m working with doesn’t have money for reprint permissions, so I’ll be paying for those myself. And I’ve gone begging with my hat in my hand.

First I went to HarperCollins for permission to reprint a chapter from a book by a well-known author they published. After sending them lots of details (publisher, pub date, first print run, price of book, world rights, etc.) they said they usually charge a fairly high fee for this author, but since I was working with a low budget, they would let me have it for only $100. This is a bargain, but it came with a caveat—something called a “favored nations clause.” Here’s how the clause is worded in my contract with HarperCollins:

FAVORED NATIONS: Permission is granted for the fee charged on condition that no higher fee is paid to another contributor.

Meanwhile another well-known author’s agency sent me a contract for the same amount—$100—for reprint permission for one of her essays. That’s two out of four. So far, so good.

pub contractBut then another press sent invoices for the other two authors’ permissions, and they were asking $160 and $140. If I paid those fees, I would have to go back to HarperCollins and pay them $160 for their permission. So, I sent an email to this press telling them my situation and begging for mercy. It worked. They agreed to $100/each for their two authors. Whew. Now I’ve got four terrific reprints for only $400. I can do this.

Meanwhile the press publishing the anthology has agreed to pay the 18 authors who are writing new essays for the book $100/each, so I’m really happy about that. It’s not much money for their work, but like me, they are all excited about the project and happy to be part of it. Writing isn’t always about the money. In fact, it rarely is. But learning the business end of publishing is an important part of the work.

Can’t wait to start editing and organizing those essays! A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be is going to rock! (Coming in March of 2017 from Mercer University Press.)

Mental Health Monday: Something Has to Die (Sometimes Begrudgingly)

forgivenessI’m thankful today for wisdom from two diverse sources—a research professor in social work and a historical novelist.

Yesterday morning before church I watched a few minutes of Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday program, because she had Brené Brown as her guest. I did a few posts about Brown about a year and a half ago, including these: (Click on any link that interests you, or just skip over these.)

“Daring Greatly”

“Surviving the Arena”

“Shame on You”

“Cultivating Self-Empathy: the Antidote to Shame”

“Changing the Self Talk”

“Unraveling With Help from Courage, Compassion and Connection.”

“Creating A Clearing.”

“People Who Have Come Alive”

I only watched a few minutes of yesterday morning’s program, but I hurried to get a piece of paper and a pen to write down these powerful words:

In order for forgiveness to happen something has to die.

I Googled the phrase and found it quoted in numerous places—it has obviously made a big impact on many people. In the interview with Oprah, Brown explained that in order to forgive, we have to grieve the loss, whether it be the loss of a marriage, a relationship or a dream of how we hoped things would be. Only then can we forgive and move on to our new normal.

How powerful. In order to let go of whatever bad feelings I have towards someone, in order to truly forgive them, I’m going to have to feel some pain. I’m going to have to let go of what I wish could have happened—to grieve that loss—and let go.

LisettesList1.22coverNovels often speak the truth as strongly as nonfiction. I’m reading Susan Vreeland’s latest novel right now—Lisette’s List. Like most of Vreeland’s writing, it’s historical fiction with art at its core, and I’m loving the book. But again, it was just one phrase that grabbed my attention when I was reading it this weekend:

Yet holding a grudge against the man I love felt terribly wrong. It was entirely against my conscience and would only compound my grief. I would have to forgive him anew each day, in a surge of love, perhaps even begrudgingly at times, until I forgot what I’d needed to forgive him for. At the moment, I could not imagine that day ever coming, though I resolved to try.

This is the second part of forgiveness that I’m trying to learn—that I have to do it anew each day, until eventually (hopefully) it’s no longer an issue. And yes, sometimes I will do this begrudgingly, and yes, it will require a surge of love.

Note: Just before publishing this post, I picked up a copy of AARP Magazine and read—among the “Top 50 Ways To Stay Healthy”—this advice (#20):

Stop Stewing. Forgiveness helps to reduce blood pressure and lower your heart rate, especially when it comes to betrayal and conflict, according to a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Faith on Friday: The New Guy

p4Our parish has had the same pastor for several decades. He knows his people inside and out. He can finish our sentences. But next spring he is retiring. Enter the New Guy.

Our new associate pastor arrived last month. He will be learning the ropes, so to speak, for a few months until he takes the reins as pastor next spring. In order to make the changing of the guard as smooth a transition as possible, our pastor has encouraged us to get to know the New Guy and even begin having him hear our confessions. That way it won’t be such a sudden shift all at once. And so I made an appointment and went to have a get-to-know-you talk on Wednesday.

Father Phillip is only 33 years old. The age of my youngest child. But he’s been a pastor for ten years at a small church in Louisiana, and he graduated from seminary before that. He is also the director of one of our diocese’s summer church camps, so many of our kids and teenagers already knew him when he arrived in Memphis. He has a warm smile and humble but natural countenance that invites confidence. I prepared for our meeting by making a list.

What an emotional journey I took as I wrote down the dates and notes about the main events in my life since 1968, the year I started dating my husband-to-be. I was seventeen. Married at 19 and hosting a group of seekers in our apartment in Jackson, Mississippi. That group would eventually become St. Peter Orthodox Church, after a seventeen year journey full of strangeness but also light. Our move to Memphis in 1988. The journey we shared with our three children as converts to Orthodoxy. The storied stages I outlined in my list, noting them as “church lady,” “dark years,” “nun phase,” “iconographer,” and eventually “writer.”

My list also contained cryptic subtitles: childhood sexual abuse, overbearing alcoholic mother, eating disorders, addictions. Having written numerous essays and a full-length memoir (which I don’t plan to publish) about these issues, it would be easy to go overboard with this information. How much could the New Guy bear to hear in our first meeting? Would I keep to the script or just test the waters and see how he responds? Would I tell him about my ongoing struggles with things like fasting, foreign-sounding music, and obedience?

What a blessing to find him up to the task— nonplussed by my sullied past and eager to help me move forward. To draw closer to God. I think I’ll even be ready for him to hear my confession soon. I know he will be ready to hear it. 

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