In her essay, “Good Friday,” in God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, Kathleen Norris says:
Death tests our faith, whether we are mourning the loss of a beloved family member or contemplating the suffering of Jesus on the cross. We can well imagine the disciples on Good Friday, stunned and disheartened by all that has happened to the dear friend they had dined with just the night before: arrest, a trial on trumped-up charges, and public execution.
I first encountered Kathleen Norris through her book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and A Writer’s Life, which explores restlessness and despair that so often accompany mid-life. Her life in the past decade has been greatly affected by death. She lost her husband (the poet David Dwyer), her parents, and her younger sister Becky, who died of cancer. Becky was developmentally challenged and often appeared as a character in Norris’ books, serving usually as her sister’s moral compass. When Kathleen writes about death, I sit up and listen:
Good Friday is a wake-up call, forcefully reminding us that suffering and death are real, and that even the son of God had to endure them. But Good Friday is also about our limited vision. When it comes to death, we are as shortsighted as Pilate, whose kingdom is built on power, the visible might of armies. He can’t comprehend the kingdom Jesus represents, one grounded in truth and love. To us, death seems like an end, but for God it is the beginning of our return to the great love from which we came.
Wouldn’t we be just like the disciples—like Peter cutting off the guard’s ear—trying to protect our friend from the current political milieu? Wouldn’t we also have a hard time understanding that, as Jesus told them, His Kingdom is not of this world? Again, Norris brings Christ’s message home:
On Good Friday, God created a kingdom, and we now live in that new reality.
Listen to this hauntingly beautiful hymn, “Today is Suspended Upon the Tree,” chanted by Father Apostolos Hill.
Blessed Holy Friday, everyone. Only four more church services (at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis) before we arrive at the celebration of His Resurrection, at 11 p.m. Saturday night! Have a glorious weekend.
Last week I was interviewed on Pamela Cable’s blog. You can read it here:
Pamela and I met at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in 2012 and instantly hit it off. We’ve stayed in touch through Facebook, and I was thrilled when she asked me to write a blurb for her soon-to-be-released novel, The Sanctum. (Watch for a review here soon.) She is also the author of Televenge and Southern Fried Women. Here’s the blurb I wrote for The Sanctum:
Pamela Cable has crafted a mystical coming of age story with The Sanctum that reminds one of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. Set just north of Kidd’s story, in the mountains of North Carolina, but with similar trappings—a young protagonist escapes an abusive upbringing and finds herself in a surprising Native American setting where family secrets are revealed and a lifetime of suffering is avenged. Cable’s Neeley also takes the reader back to Harper Lee’s “Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird. Beautiful prose dotted with colorful dialogue and panoramic scenery enriches this page-turning Southern mystery.
Darkness gets a bad rap. It’s often associated with evil, whereas light is touted as good, especially in literature and drama. Bad guys often wear black; heroes sport white. And when it comes to mental health, someone who is depressed might describe their feelings as being in a “dark mood” or “in a deep dark hole.” Our parents’ generation didn’t cast it quite as darkly, saying, “I’m feeling blue.” And of course with music, that translates to the blues. But no one ever says, when we are depressed, I’m feeling light.
What color is anxiety? I’ve been anxious quite a bit lately, about a number of things. That anxiety plus an overly active mind have kept me awake a couple of nights. Insomnia isn’t something I experience regularly, thank God. But when it hits, it’s exhausting. Sometimes I can feel my heart beating as I lay still trying to sleep, anxious thoughts seeming to flutter around the room like so many birds. I wouldn’t describe the feeling as dark, but more like murky—lacking clarity.
Yesterday I read an article in The Atlantic by Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss and other works of nonfiction and fiction. (The Kiss is excellent, but a little dark, because Harrison wrote it about the incestuous affair she was forced to have with her father.) The article is really about writing (she not only has several published books but she teaches writing) but it’s also about darkness, which she embraces. She reflects on a poem by Joseph Brodsky, “On Love,” especially this line:
For darkness restores what the light cannot repair.
The darkness Brodsky and Harrison are talking about here has to do with our unconscious lives, and especially the dream world, where many believe healing can take place. As Harrison explains:
Many human transactions take place in this realm of darkness. On unconscious planes, through dreams—even, on some level, in people’s ability to communicate without words. By darkness, I don’t mean black, as in lacking light. I mean dark: the aspect of life that is not accessible through our conscious processes of analysis…. There’s huge redemption in the fact that there is a world that is dark, or opaque, to conscious life. The realm of darkness that heals and restores, and allows memory to bind up, provides the present with a kind of solace that is almost holy. The line is about the holy and generative properties that exist within us. And so, I think the line is about God. A realm that God inhabits.
I believe that God inhabits the darkness. There are many stories in the Old Testament, especially, where God met the prophets of old in the darkness. And of course He went down into Hades to free the captives. He doesn’t just dwell in light.
It’s Holy Week for Orthodox Christians, and the services at my church this week could be called dark. The music is often in a minor key, the tone and atmosphere itself subdued. The lights are dimmed, the nave mostly illumined by candles, which cast a muted brightness on the gold leaf of the icons behind them, but also dark shadows. Even the priests’ and deacons’ vestments and the cloths covering the altar and icon stands are dark, having replaced the usual gold and white coverings. Is all this darkness evil? No, it’s a necessary part of our spiritual—and emotional—journey through Christ’s passion. And not unlike the unconscious world described by Harrison, this atmosphere can “heal and restore” and provide “a kind of solace that is almost holy.”
I’m going back there tonight. To the darkness of the church service. I’m going to try to let go of my anxiety through the unconscious work of chanting and prayer, breathing in the incense that reminds us that our prayers rise to God from the darkness of our broken lives.
I’m off to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother in the nursing home today, so I don’t have much time to blog today. But as we enter the final days before Pascha, I wanted to share something significant about this journey. As usual, Father Stephen Freeman provided the fodder and I’m quoting from his blog for this post. It’s about Holy Week… which begins in a few days for Orthodox Christians. The whole post is worth a read, but I’m going to share only the section from Saint Gregory of Nyssa, who said these words to his people as they approached Holy Week:
If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow. If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber. If even He was numbered among the transgressors for you and your sin, become law-abiding for His sake. Worship Him Who was hanged for you, even if you yourself are hanging; make some gain even from your wickedness; purchase salvation by your death; enter with Jesus into Paradise, so that you may learn from what you have fallen. Contemplate the glories that are there; let the murderer die outside with his blasphemies; and if you be a Joseph of Arimathæa, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make your own that which cleanses the world. If you be a Nicodemus, the worshipper of God by night, bury Him with spices. If you be a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be first to see the stone taken away, and perhaps you will see the Angels and Jesus Himself. Say something; hear His Voice. If He says to you, “Touch Me not,” stand afar off; reverence the Word, but do not grieve; for He knows those to whom He appears first. Keep the feast of the Resurrection; come to the aid of Eve who was first to fall, of Her who first embraced the Christ, and made Him known to the disciples. Be a Peter or a John; hasten to the Sepulchre, running together, running against one another, vying in the noble race. And even if you be beaten in speed, win the victory of zeal; not looking into the tomb, but going in. And if, like a Thomas, you were left out when the disciples were assembled to whom Christ shows Himself, when you do see Him do not be faithless; and if you do not believe, then believe those who tell you; and if you cannot believe them either, then have confidence in the print of the nails. If He descend into Hell, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also…. And if He ascend up into Heaven, ascend with Him. Be one of those angels who escort Him, or one of those who receive Him. Bid the gates be lifted up, or be made higher, that they may receive Him, exalted after His Passion….
Learn to know the mysteries of Christ. So here we go again… At Saint John, our parish here in Memphis, we have services every day for the next ten days, and two to three services on some days. Pascha (Easter) is May 1. I’ll be back next week with more reflections, God willing.
It’s been too long since I’ve written an essay. I’ve been busy with other writing projects, and querying agents for my novel. And even thinking of working on a new novel. (Thinking is part of the process.) So yesterday I decided to write an essay, and this morning I started on it. I was prompted by a listing in the May/June 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine for Creative Nonfiction journal’s essay contest:
A prize of $1,000 and publication in Creative Nonfiction is given quarterly for an essay. The theme for the Winter 2017 issue is “Joy.” The editors will judge. Submit an essay of up to 4,000 words with a $20 entry fee ($25 to receive a subscription to Creative Nonfiction) by May 16. There is no entry fee for subscribers. All entries are considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines.
And so I went to the CNF website to learn more:
Too often the moments that move us to write are bleak ones—stories of loss, hardship, or learning through painful interactions. For this issue we’re looking for well-crafted narratives that explore the brighter moments in life, those that teach and enlighten us through their beauty or humor.
Yes. I can do that. So much of my own writing has been motivated by painful memories… it will be a nice change to write about joy. And then I sat down to write, and I found it challenging. It’s easy to be overly cheerful, simplistic, or sentimental when writing about “happy” times. I revisited the CNF guidelines for more direction:
Your tale of joy need not revolve around ecstatic delight or a once-in-a-lifetime moment; we are equally interested in thoughtfully-written pieces about finding pleasure in small things or unexpected places, and in works that highlight moments of joy in the midst of otherwise difficult circumstances.
And finally the journal guidelines encourage the writer to “avoid sentimental, uncomplicated “feel-good” stories.”
This morning I wrote 1200 words—about one third of an essay. I took a lunch break and then read what I had written. It’s tempting to throw it away and/or start over, but I think I’ll finish what I started and then make that decision after more revisions. Whether or not I enter the CNF contest, it feels good to be writing an essay. To be trying. The word essay comes from the French essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” Before continuing my attempt I read again parts of Phillip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. My writing tends to be very personal, and the essay I’m drafting already has that feel to it. And what feel is that? Lopate says:
The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The write seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.
I think I’ve been striving for that intimacy in my blog posts here for the past nine years. And in my published essays to date. But I want to stretch my effort—my trying—with this piece. I want to take it beyond the personal to the universal, to make my readers care about events that were personal to me. More on this from Lopate:
At the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience. As Michel de Montaigne, the great innovator and patron saint of personal essayists, put it, ‘Every man has within himself the entire human condition.’ This meant that when he was telling about himself, he was talking, to some degree, about all of us.
Spoiler alert: my essay is about my children, and specifically about my experiences adopting all three of them. So right there, am I limiting my audience? Will people who don’t have adopted children, and people who were not themselves adopted be interested in my thoughts? It’s up to me, the essayists, to be sure they are. How? Again, from Lopate:
The personal essay has an open form and a drive toward candor and self-disclosure. Unlike the formal essay, it depends less on airtight reasoning than on style and personality, what Elizabeth Hardwick called ‘the soloists’ personal signature flowing through the text.’
That’s all I’ve got to do—create an emotional intimacy with my readers as I spill my guts about the joy I experienced as a result of adopting three children, all the while wowing those readers with my style and personality. All I can say is I’m going to keep trying.
P. S. You can get a hardcover copy of The Art of the Personal Essay at Barnes & Noble online right now for $1.99. Incredible bargain.
P.S.S. Another helpful book for those trying to write essays is Dinty Moore’s Crafting the Personal Essay.
So, after almost nine years of posting on my blog three times a week, this morning I forgot about it. First. Time. Ever. Hope this isn’t a preview of coming distractions. I was about to leave the house on errands around 11 a.m. when my son sent me the new banner he and his wife designed for my web site, and when I went to the site to see it, I remembered that I hadn’t written a post for Mental Health Monday.
Maybe the best thing I can do for my mental health is not overreact. I did other good things this morning: I exercised 20 minutes on the elliptical. I ate ¼ cantaloupe. After splurging a bit this weekend, my weight was back up a pound. I was so hoping to lose another 5 pounds before our trip to Paris (May 6) but at this rate it’s not happening. Trying to think like a French woman of a certain age and eat tiny, tiny servings, even of really delicious food. But here’s what happens:
MIND: I know what to do.
HEART: I want to do the right ting.
BODY: I ignore my brain and heart and eat more than I should.
Okay, Body, today we are going to listen to our mind and heart. Let’s go.
And thanks for the new banner, Jason and See!
An article in yesterday’s Orthodox Arts Journal reveals a new icon of Saint Mary of Egypt—my patron saint—who is commemorated in the Orthodox Christian Church on April 1 and the 5th Sunday of Great Lent (this coming Sunday). The article was written by Father Silouan Justiniano, who also wrote the icon. He goes into a lot of depth about the symbolism and style he used, so for my readers with an interest in iconography, Orthodoxy, or art, it’s well worth the read. For my purposes in this blog post I’ll only share a short excerpt, which focuses on the symbolism in the figure of Saint Mary:
St. Mary’s transfigured state, beyond the limitations of corporeality, is suggested not only by the fact that she walks on water, as the Lord Himself once did, but also by her luminescent yellow-green garment. Like precious gold, the yellow of the Sun of Righteousness glows within her, while green overshadows the glow as a symbol of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, the “Giver of life.” Moreover, by standing on water St. Mary shows her overcoming of the turbidity and murkiness of the watery passions. Her mercuric state has been stabilized, lead has been turned into gold. In dispassion she becomes one with the One in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, her sins like drops of muddy water fall into the Abyss of mercy beyond being, causing a ripple without disturbance, dissolving without a trace, while her true self remains and arises undissolved. Solve et coagula…Through the furnace of repentance she has become an angel in the flesh.
I wept as I read those words on Thursday morning. The previous evening (Wednesday) I had been to a Lenten service at my parish, Saint John Orthodox in Memphis, where the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete was chanted, and the life of Saint Mary of Egypt was read. Throughout the service—while the chanting was going on—parishioners had the opportunity to make their confessions with one of the two priests standing before the icons on the solea. I found myself there following the first half of the reading of Saint Mary’s life, moved to much-needed repentance, and receiving grace and healing from the sacrament. I felt, as the priest prayed the prayers of absolution with his stole covering my head, my true self remaining and arising undissolved. I left the service with a renewed desire to be like her, “a symbol of the purified desiring aspect of the soul”:
She roamed in the desert naked feeling no shame for she regained the garment of her primordial beauty. In her former life she had an “insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth,”[ix] but she is now a symbol of the purified desiring aspect of the soul, the realization of true eros, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good…who satisfies your desire with good things” (Psalm 34:8; 103:5).
My friend Sybil McBeth has a new book coming out in June. You can pre-order it here:
Pray in Color (an adult coloring book)
I’m excited about this new book, especially since I already enjoy my coloring books with mandalas and also one of modern art. This one will bring a new element into my coloring experience, as I learn to combine the activity with prayer.
Sybilis the author of Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God (2007) and Praying in Color Kids’ Edition (2009). Praying in Color uses doodling and coloring as a way to get still and listen to God. She combines her lifelong love of prayer with her experience as a community college mathematics professor to offer workshops and retreats throughout the U.S. and Canada. Her 2014 book The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist (Paraclete Press, Fall 2014) invites people to experience the richness of the holiday season at home. Learn more at Sybil’s website and blog: prayingincolor.com.
Evidently there are two (French) secrets to getting and staying slim: “the decision and apples.”
That’s what Tish Jett’s internist told her. Jett is the author of Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance. I’m devouring this book in preparation for our trip to Paris in a few weeks, but also because I’ve always admired French women-the way they dress, their natural-looking complexions, their slim and youthful bodies.
Six months after starting my weight-loss program, I hit a wall—emotionally and physically. I had lost 17 pounds, but I keep gaining back 2 pounds, then losing them again, then gaining them back. I feel stuck. I’m tired of counting calories and I’ve had a few emotional struggles that sent me on binges. Not the really big, bad binges I used to indulge in, but off the track and up the scales, for sure.
So this morning as I continued reading in Jett’s book, I found some strength to carry on. Part of Jett’s research for the book included interviews with friends. (She lived in France for ten years.) All of them slim. None of them ever diet. But their whole approach to food is based on a mindset I’m trying to adopt. Like her friend, Alexander Fourcade, an internist and mother of three daughters between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six, who has never been on a diet:
Diets are passé…. They are too mentally time-consuming. I don’t even think about eating anymore. I know what’s good for me and what isn’t. My body tells me. I’m attuned to how I feel when I eat well, or less well. When I make exceptions for wine, champagne, or a dessert, it’s a conscious decision and I enjoy every second.
I was right there with her for a while, but lately some of those exceptions haven’t been completely “conscious decisions,” and I end up depressed.
So what’s a “woman of a certain age” to do when dieting isn’t working? Again, Jett’s internist says:
There are two secrets: “the decision” and “apples.”
He keeps several apples in his car for those times when he’s hungry or just having a craving. And Jett’s friend Francoise never leaves home without hard-boiled eggs when she isn’t sure healthy food will be available to her. Another friend, Anne Francoise, always keeps a bag of almonds in her handbag. Apples. Boiled eggs. Almonds. Not Reece’s pieces or potato chips or Cokes.
I remember going on a road trip with a friend who successfully lost 30 pounds and kept it off. She kept small containers of tuna in her car—the pop-top kind—so she could pop one open for a quick protein snack. She carried bottled water, and instead of stopping at gas stations (unless she actually needed gas) she stopped at state park type rest stops, which were less likely to have lots of tempting fried foods and sweets.
These ideas sounds good, except that they seem to only apply to people who actually get hungry. In her book Jett says that people eat for two reasons: hunger and pleasure. I rarely eat because I’m hungry. In fact, I love the way I feel when my body gets physically hungry, and I often do my best mindful eating in that state. It’s when I’m bored or anxious that I look to food to replace those unpleasant feelings with pleasant ones.
Another physician Jett interviewed talked about another important issue for those of us who struggle with food cravings:
An impulse lasts for twelve minutes…. She suggested that we can overcome an impulse by immediately doing something for twelve minutes, like polishing our nails, for example, or making a phone call. Mindfulness helps us identify the menace and keeps us in the moment; then we decide.
Of course I’ve been trying to practice mindfulness for some time now, but this twelve-minute impulse thing is intriguing. I often get cravings when I’m out shopping. I want to hit up a drive-thru for something really “bad” like ice cream or French fries and Coke. Or going through the checkout line at the grocery—after purchasing all healthy foods—I’ll pick up a package of mini Reece’s. Other times cravings hit when I’m alone at home and struggling about something emotionally. I try not to keep potato chips and other “trigger carbs” in the pantry for this reason.
There’s lots of other specific, helpful information in the book, but these are the gems I wanted to share today. Forever Chic also has lots of information about skin care, hair care, and wardrobe choices, all of which I’m enjoying and some of which I’m applying. I was already on track with good hair care (and spending a fair amount of money on good hair cuts and color) but my skin care regiment needed revamping. Thanks to Jett’s wisdom, I’m making some changes that I hope will result in healthier skin.
I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from the chapter on healthy eating:
With few exceptions, my friends and the women I met while writing this book told me they are gourmands at heart. Translation: they love to eat and might fleetingly consider larger portions of their favorite foods if they didn’t love some of their favorite clothes even more.
Most of those women can still wear clothes they purchased ten or twenty years ago, because of impulse control and good choices. And so I continue the journey with renewed enthusiasm… less than a month before we leave for Paris!
Yesterday afternoon around 1:30 p.m. I received this text from my husband:
I’ve been in a bad wreck but think I’m OK—on North Parkway at Dunlap.
My heart stopped. My hands started shaking. But I was able to text him back:
I’m on my way.
When I arrived (in about 3 minutes) and saw his car, I burst into tears. Memories of my wreck almost three years ago came flooding back into my head and heart. But I ran over to where Bill was talking with the emergency responders and saw that he was, indeed, fine.
What happened? A woman entered North Parkway from Dunlap on the north side of the street, going south—where it is a ONE WAY street going north. Her car was also in bad shape, but thankfully neither she nor my husband were seriously injured. Bill only has a few bruises, thank God.
Thank God. We say that almost flippantly all the time, don’t we? Even people who aren’t religious say it, especially when expressing relief over something that could have been much worse. The baby was born prematurely but she’s going to be fine, thank God. His cancer is in remission, thank God. She wasn’t shot in the terrorist attack, thank God.
But yesterday and today those words are much more than a platitude for my husband and I. Last night when he finished his evening prayers—which he says in front of our icon corner in the dining room—and came to bed, I asked him again if he was okay. He said he was just thanking God for keeping him safe and unharmed.
As we move forward, dealing with insurance (the other driver has insurance, thank God) and considering new car shopping, we both have thankful hearts and a new appreciation for life. For God. For angels.