Faith on Friday: Finding Faith in a Nobel Prize Winner’s Poetry

565px-TranstroemerMy post is a day late, and will be short. I recently discovered the poetry of Tomas Transtromer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature. I learned about Transtromer when a quote from his work was shared with me by a poet friend who is contributing an essay to my upcoming anthology, A Second Blooming. Here’s what she shared:

I don’t know if we’re in the beginning or in the final stage.

This is so applicable to all of us who are experiencing new “bloomings” at various stages of our lives. More about Transtromer:

As Jennifer Whiting says in her work, “The Recognition of Faith in the Poetry of Tomas Transtromer,” her goal was to:

explore the theme of faith through three recognitions that repeatedly occur in Transtromer’s poetry: the recognition of the holy unseen as magnetic forces drawing human beings toward them, the recognition of the self as God’s unfolding creation, and the recognition of others and nature as fellow creation — that is, acts of ongoing creation.

Transtromer’s poetry doesn’t seem to be overtly religious, or even spiritual. But his words often speak universally to people who are in diverse places where faith is concerned. I like this one:

Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves. (From “Preludes”)

My spiritual journey—especially over the past fifteen or twenty years—has been informed by psychology and art, and Transtromer’s work is infused with both of these. Want to read more about him? Here’s a good article from The New Yorker, right after he won the Nobel: “Miracle Speech: The Poetry of Tomas Transtromer,” by Teju Cole.

Enjoy.

Writing on Wednesday: Professional Kindness

image-cedc980d61e20a9a08f0c8d37265f4ce-february-17-random-acts-of-kindness-daySometimes in the often perplexing publishing world you run into some extremely nice people. Like the director of an academic press I queried recently for Tangles and Plaques, my book about long-distance caregiving for my mother, who has Alzheimer’s.  Here’s part of her reply to me:

Dear Susan,

I’ve now had time to look through the materials you sent and to discuss them with my editorial colleagues. First, I want to thank you for sharing your proposal with me. My grandmother died after living with Alzheimer’s for 12 years after the diagnosis. Caregiving takes an incredible amount of patience and fortitude, especially when done from afar, and I think you’ve done a wise thing in channeling your experience into narrative form.

For a number of years, our press had a list in consumer health, and we published a series of books on living with/caring for individuals with certain diseases. We discontinued this list, however, about 10 years ago, as online resources became more common and eroded the bookstore market for our titles. Since this is the case, I’m afraid we here just wouldn’t have the marketing focus to publish and promote your book as successfully as we would both like.

I do have some suggestions, though, if you’d like to see this work in print. You’ve done some good research in putting together your proposal, and your list of comparable titles is smart. Those publishers might be a very good fit for what you have. Also, self-publishing today is very different from the self-publishing of ten or even five years ago. There are a number of good options out there for authors with a targeted market and the interest in doing work to reach that market. From your CV, you appear to have a healthy network of contacts already building, both from your other writing activities and through followers of your blog. If the self-publishing route appeals to you, you already have in place some excellent channels for reaching those who would be interested in your book.

Another thought: there are likely many memoirs of Alzheimer’s and of those who care for aging parents with this disease out there. But you also speak of an interesting angle: the fact that you manage caregiving long distance. Just from a quick search of Amazon, there don’t appear to be many titles at all with that particular focus. But I suspect there are a LOT of children who are engaged with the challenge of caring for family members in a long distance way. This very well may be what sets your work apart, and gives you an even more targeted audience that connects directly to your experiences.

I hope these thoughts are of use to you as you think about your next steps for the project.

I was amazed by her professional kindness in taking so much time not only to evaluate my proposal but also to offer suggestions for other publishing options, since her press isn’t able to accept the book. These kinds of replies aren’t really “rejections,” but more like having a partner in the publishing world offering help.

Wow. Just wow.

Mental Health Monday: Inside the Dementia Epidemic

Cover image with medal StettiniusI’m reading an incredible book right now—Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir by Martha Stennius.  I downloaded it to my Kindle, thinking I would only skim it, considering it as a “comparative title” for my own book about dementia, Tangles and Plaques, which I’m currently shopping out to small presses. But then I couldn’t put it down.

Unlike my collection of essays—taken from seven years of blog posts about caregiving for my mother, who has Alzheimer’s—Stennius writes her book looking back, reflecting on (and at times harshly judging herself for) the way she handled each stage of her mother’s descent with dementia. While my posts are immediate and only lightly edited, the chapters in her memoir delve more deeply into the emotional roller-coaster that the mother-daughter relationship can be, with or without the added feature of dementia and caregiving.

Stennius writes scenes of intimacy with candor—like the first time she had to help her mother with her diaper. And she shares her own embarrassment at realizing that she had never brushed her mother’s hair. But it’s the way she weaves the bumpy issues of their relationship before the dementia with their changing roles that was so powerful for me, as a daughter, as a mother, as a reader.

Even if you are caring for a loved one with other health issues, or just beginning to look into the next steps to take with your aging parents, this book will be helpful. I nodded as I read about her struggles with choices of assisted living, memory care units, nursing homes, Medicare, and Medicaid. Here’s what happened when Martha learns that Medicare is stopping payment at the rehab center because her mother has met all her goals:

I’m taken by surprise, as only last week the staff thought Mom would be there a few more weeks. I will have three days to arrange Mom’s transfer back to Greenway. What follows is a logistical debacle—missed doctor’s signatures; delayed approvals from her old assisted living facility for her to move back; crises at my job; and Andrew’s tenth birthday party. If Mom stays at the rehab center past Friday, there will be a high price to pay–$200, funds that Mom will need for her future care. Friday morning I squeeze two hours out of my day to move Mom back to Greenway.

I’ve dealt with similar situations over the years and I’m sure they’re not over, as I’m in the middle of one with Medicaid right now. But I find comfort—if only knowing that others are going through similar struggles—in Stennius’ wonderful memoir. And it’s well written.

Faith on Friday: Women (and Girls) of Faith in Fiction

illustration by Todd St. John

illustration by Todd St. John

This morning I woke up thinking about faith, as I often do on Friday mornings. After saying my morning prayers and getting a cup of coffee, I enjoyed watching the birds and squirrels eating the seeds I tossed out on the sidewalk for them this morning, knowing that the ground would be covered with snow, if only a light dusting here in Memphis. I marveled at how the birds and squirrels could live outside in the freezing temperatures because of the fur and feathers God provided for them. The scripture verse came to mind, ““But if God so arrays the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you, O men of little faith!” (Luke 12:28)

LisettesList1.22coverI’ve just finished reading Julie Cantrell’s wonderful third novel, The Feathered Bone. And I’m almost finished with Susan Vreeland’s historical novel, Lisette’s List. They both have strong protagonists—well, Lisette is stronger than Amanda (Feathered Bone narrator) but it’s Sarah—one of the two young girls in Feathered Bone—whose strong faith in God guides her through several difficult years. (I’m being vague so as not to give away the plot.) The difference is that while Sarah’s faith is clearly in God, Lisette’s seems to be placed in herself and the people she loves and trusts. There’s little mention of God; her faith seems to be placed in the goodness that prevails amongst the people in her small little village just south of Paris during World War II.

Both Lisette and Amanda suffer painful losses—and Sarah endures a terrible ordeal—but faith serves to get them all through to places of healing and renewed joy. Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” I’m not sure how that applies to the faith embraced by characters in works of fiction. But perhaps the readers of these two books will end up imitating the strengths of Sarah, Amanda and Lisette.

[Lisette's List was published in 2014. A Feathered Bone will launch next Tuesday at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, but you can pre-order it from any bookstore or online.]

PreOrderOffer

Writing on Wednesday: Art is Never Finished

4dc4af1f061ba5246c2c0739f902cedf“Poetry is never finished; it is only abandoned.”—W. H. Auden

A similar quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” is often attributed to Picasso, Paul Valéry, and Leonardo DaVinci.

When my (now 33-year-old) daughter was in AP/Studio Art in high school, she spent many more hours on her work for that class than all her (more academic) classes put together. Why? Because a work of art is never “finished.” It can always be improved, so the artist keeps painting/sketching/revising the piece until (1) deadline or (2) exhaustion, whichever comes first. And then when she was in grad school in architecture, she (and other students) often spent several nights a week in the studio, all night, working on their projects. Most of them kept sleeping bags in the studio in the architecture building.

It’s similar with writing. For the anthology I’m editing, several contributors asked if they could send revised versions of their essays to me AFTER we had agreed on revisions at one point. They read them a few days later and realized they could be improved.  Of course at some point the editor (in this case me) has to say “It is finished,” or deadlines won’t be met. It’s a tough call.

Have you ever read a book and discovered (much to the author’s chagrin, I’m sure) as I did recently, a typo? Or certain sentences or passages that just didn’t seem to measure up to the quality of the rest of the book? It’s almost impossible for a writer to read a book—or even an essay or newspaper or magazine article—without a critical eye, the same way I imagine someone who cooks for a living would approach a meal in a restaurant. I try to read “for pleasure” and stop myself from constantly critiquing what I read, but it’s hard, especially since I’m often reading with an eye to writing a book review or promoting the book, especially if I’m friends with the author.

julie2My current read is my friend Julie Cantrell’s new novel (which will launch at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, next Tuesday, January 26) The Feathered Bone. I think the highest compliment I can pay Julie is that I’ve read over half the book in a few short days, and I find myself caring deeply about the characters and turning the pages a little more quickly than usual because I’m eager to find out what happens next. Oh, sure, I slow down and enjoy her artistic turn of phrase from time to time, but only once or twice have I thought, “I wish she would have said that differently.” For the most part I’m just holding on for the ride, which is richly anchored by sense of place, strong character development, and historic details—in and around New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. It’s a beautiful work of art, and I hope that Julie enjoys celebrating its completion and publication. It is finished.

Mental Health Monday: Permission to Grieve

Sue IngramThis is a week for grieving. A dear woman in our church passed away last week, after a seven-year battle with cancer. The funeral was this morning at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis. Many wonderful words were spoken about Sue, both at the visitation and Trisagion Prayers service last night, and again at the funeral service this morning. She touched many lives with her love, strength, and humility. And now her husband and daughters—who cared for her during her decline at home for the past couple of years—are grieving. As they should be.

One of our dear friends (who is also our Godson) lost his brother this past weekend. Thomas was only 64—my age. He struggled with an illness that landed him in the hospital just before Christmas, followed by a brief stay in a rehab facility, and then another hospitalization. His illness and death came suddenly, and so his brother and their family are also grieving. My husband will be officiating at his funeral, which will be this Saturday afternoon.

I just read an article in the Huffington Post by Margaret Howard called “11 Healthy Ways to Grieve.” Some of her insights:

Death makes people uncomfortable. Mourning reminds us of death. So no one wants to see grief and mourning….This comes partly from our Puritan roots, which value stoicism, and that we adhere to unconsciously. The cultural message is: It’s weird to mourn. That cultural message is unhealthy and unnatural.

I remember when my father died back in 1998. Over 500 people attended his funeral service. Some of the people at his church kept telling me, “This will be a celebration of his life! Let’s keep it upbeat and happy!” But when it came my time to speak (yes, I asked to speak at my father’s funeral) I talked about how my father’s early death at 68 was an affront to life.  I spoke of the trauma my mother and I suffered as Dad became an invalid for fourteen months and eventually died at home with Hospice care, and Mom and I by his side. I wept as I spoke. Later during the reception in the fellowship hall, more than one person said to me, “Thank you for giving us permission to grieve.”

Howard explains why our culture makes us feel uncomfortable expressing grief:

We think of grief that lasts beyond a very short window (funeral, visitation, a short leave from work if we’re lucky, or maybe six months of “reasonable” sadness if we adhere to some guidelines) as a weakness; a spiritual failing; a mental illness….

Sue Ingram photosIt’s often hard to know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. Especially if they have been involved in intensive caregiving, as Sue’s family has. It might be tempting to say (or think): “I know you must be relieved,” or “I’m glad she is no longer suffering.” And while it’s true that her suffering is over, it’s not always true that the family feels relief. Sue’s family is suffering greatly because, as one of her daughters said to me last night, “I miss her so much!” That’s healthy grieving.

A text from the funeral service in the Orthodox Church is titled, “I Weep and I Wail.” One of our priests chanted that hymn this morning. The music has the elements of a dirge. If this seems counter to the Christian mindset of belief in life after death and celebration of the resurrection, again I think that’s because of how our culture has tried to sanitize death and funerals. It’s okay, actually it’s preferable, to do both: to weep and to wail as we feel the pain of loss, and also to celebrate the resurrection (in the Christian tradition) or the person’s life or whatever works for your personal beliefs.

Faith on Friday: Prayer Cards for Effie

Prayer cards

 

 

When I was visiting my mother in the nursing home this past Monday, I found several “prayer cards” in a drawer of the table by her bed—notes from a group of people at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson (Mississippi)—the church my parents helped establish in the 1950s—who get together every Monday (or so the dates seem to say) to pray for people. I found cards dating back to January of 2015, some opened, others still in sealed envelopes.

Mom hasn’t been able to read mail for a couple of years. She no longer understands what it is, and of course she doesn’t recognize the names of the people who send her cards and letters. But the love and prayers behind the cards are such a blessing to me.

Yesterday I read through those cards and wrote thank-you notes to several folks whose names I recognized. What a joy to see Jeffie Carter—who taught me in the second grade at Spann Elementary School—amongst them. Jeffie must be in her late 80s or early 90s by now. She was my very favorite teacher of all time. Also amongst the names were Linda and Auburn Lambeth. Auburn was my Sunday School teacher at least one year at Covenant. Dr. Boyd Shaw—the compassionate physician I called upon during the final days and hours of my father’s life when the hospice nurses couldn’t get Dad’s doctor to prescribe more morphine. Ernie Strahan, Richard Coker, and Virginia Brock’s names were also there—other founding members of the church from over fifty years ago.

As I read over the names, I thought about the fact that my mother would be one of those people gathering to pray on Mondays, and signing her name to the cards being mailed out, if she could. How tragic that she’s the one in the nursing home instead—no long able to read the cards and remember these people she’s known for so long.

When I wrote my thank you notes to several of these people, I told them that their prayers were like hidden treasures, so valuable and yet unseen by most people. But not God. I believe He hears their prayers, and that somehow—in a mystery—my mother is comforted by them.

Writing on Wednesday: Change is in the Air

Change-Is-In-The-Air

 

Just over three years ago one of my many query letters for my novel, Cherry Bomb, caught the attention of a literary agent. More than the attention—she said she loved the book—and she asked if I would be willing to work with an editor on some revisions. Of course I would.

Four editors and four major revisions later, I am parting ways with this agent. It’s not that I don’t like her. I met her in person on a visit to New York City last May, and I think our personalities are a good fit. But it has taken me this long and dozens of emails to realize that we just might not have the same vision for my novel. I think she sees Cherry Bomb as a potentially good commercial fiction book (think Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) whereas I still see it as Southern literary fiction (think The Secret Life of Bees). Of course those labels have extremely loose boundaries, and at the end of the day I’m not so concerned about which niche the book falls into. But I am concerned about it finding the right advocate and eventually the right publishing home.

And so today I find myself back at square one. Only with a good bit more experience and discernment under my belt. I’m trying to decide whether to look for another agent or seek out an independent press. Thankfully I’ve got other projects on my plate so I’m not sitting around stewing about this. I’ve got eighteen out of 22 essays gathered and revised for the anthology I’m editing, A Second Blooming. And I’m beginning to form ideas for grouping these amazing stories into sections and crafting an introduction. I’m excited to have met a wonderful photographer who will do my author photo in March or early April, when we can find a setting with things that are, well, blooming.

192528952789855164_4FsOYgkb_bI’m so thankful for my circle of writer friends who are giving me much encouragement, consolation, and advice, as I have been anxious about this situation over the past few days. Writing can be a lonely business, and the publishing world is in such flux that it’s often difficult to maneuver. Stay tuned as I decide on the next steps to getting Cherry Bomb out there!

Mental Health Monday: Experiencing Our Experiences All the Way Through

In Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today, he says:

… it is our experiences that transform us—if we are willing to experience our experiences all the way through, even and most especially the hard and wounding ones.

imagesI had a wounding experience recently. Nothing traumatic, just one of those times of rubbing up against another human being and getting a little bit pricked. I was aware that it might be good for me to experience it, as Rohr says, “all the way through,” but I didn’t want to. I escaped the pain by leaving the setting and having a drink. Later I discussed the situation with a close friend, who poured healing oil on my soul, leaving me with less regret for not having stayed in the moment. Perhaps it was transformative after all.

I’m bringing this up this morning because I’m about to leave on a trip to visit my mother in the nursing home today. I won’t say that each visit with her is a “wounding experience,” but it’s rarely easy. And over the years, as I’ve learned to forgive her and my love for her has grown, I’ve found that some of those visits can transform me. I’m asking God to give me grace to feel whatever feelings may come when I’m with her today, and to bring a measure of grace into her life by my presence.

Faith on Friday: Just Do It!

Icon Corner_edited-1I have read dozens of books about prayer—including my favorites from the Orthodox spiritual tradition, like Beginning to Pray, Courage to Pray, and Living Prayer, by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. In recent years I’ve enjoyed books on prayer from more diverse sources, like Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow and Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal.

As an Orthodox Christian, I have a “prayer rule.” My spiritual father helped me set it up about twenty-five years ago. It includes a number of “set” prayers in the Orthodox tradition, and also a time for repentance, and for supplication for others. For several years when I was more attentive to my prayer life, I stood before my icons and prayed these prayers every morning and night. And I made efforts at practicing what is known as “The Jesus Prayer” during the day.  And then I went through a dark period, spiritually, during which I didn’t pray very much.

After my car wreck in July of 2013, I began to pray again. For several months I could only pray lying in a hospital bed in my office at home. It took a while before I had the strength to pray standing before my icons again. And now—since I’m “recovered” to what I call my “new normal,”—I have the strength to stand and pray, but I find myself following this practice only in the mornings. Somehow by evening the day has worn me down and the bed (or sometimes the TV or a good book) calls to me more strongly than the prayer corner. And I’m not making much effort with spontaneous prayer throughout the day.

Recently I had an experience that reminded me of the power of prayer. Especially the power of having a mindset of awareness of God’s presence. I was dealing with a frustrating situation in my writing life (which still isn’t resolved) and I found myself so anxious about it that I lay in bed one night this week thinking about the issues involved until I realized that I had not prayed about it. At all. And so I turned my thoughts towards God and told Him all about the situation (as though He doesn’t know) and how anxious I am. And then I began to pray for the other people involved—for their minds to be open and their hearts to be soft as we continue working through the situation. And finally I asked God to please give me peace within the situation.

An amazing thing happened. I felt less anxious. I slept peacefully and have continued to deal with the situation in the following days with a still heart and more clarity of mind.

PapawRunningWhy are we always surprised when we do the right thing and it brings good results? My husband (and my father, who died in 1998) is the kind of person who just does the right thing, almost intuitively. He’s very disciplined, as was my father, who ran marathons into his late sixties. Mom and Dad owned Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1982-1997. Initially they had an exclusive contract with Nike (before Nike broke the contract and began to sell their shoes in discount stores) and I remember that my Dad loved Nike’s slogan: “Just Do It!” It was while I was working for Mom and Dad, running the aerobic dance studio at their store, that I learned to put that slogan into practice and lost weight and got into good physical shape for the first time in my life. Here I am twenty-five years later trying to get my 64-year-old body back into shape by eating less and exercising more. As I work out on my elliptical machine in my office at home, I find myself looking at the large watercolor picture on the wall in front of me for inspiration. It’s a picture of my father running in a marathon. When I’m tired of exercising and want to quit, I listen for his voice. There it is: “Just do it!”

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