Why Binge-Watching a TV Series is Like Reading a Novel

Cast of The Newsroom

Cast of The Newsroom

I miss Will, MacKenzie, Charlie, Jim, Maggie, Sloan, Don and Neal! This weekend I finished binge-watching the HBO series (three seasons) “The Newsroom” on Amazon Prime Video (using Roku). This wasn’t my first time at binge-watching. A couple of years ago I did two posts about this activity:

The Anatomy of a Binge

Binge-Watching Continued

The shows I have binge-watched so far include: House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, Rectify, and recently Switched at Birth and The Newsroom.

binge-watch-tv-860x442

 

So this morning I woke up thinking about how binge-watching a TV series is like reading a novel. When you watch a TV show as it comes out—one episode each week—you can sometimes lose momentum. Sure, you look forward to the next show, but 7 days later you might have lost some of the immediacy of the plot. You probably haven’t even thought about the characters since the last episode.
But when you watch three years’ worth in a few days (or even a week or two) it’s so much more like reading a good novel. That feeling that you can’t put it down. That you have to know what happens next. (Although this article says that binge-watching just might be changing out brains!)

Yesterday afternoon when I watched the finale of the final season of “The Newsroom,” I found myself sad to be saying goodbye to these characters I had come to care so much about. Will and MacKenzie got married and they’re having a baby! How will that affect MacKenzie’s new position as network president? Maggie and Jim are together but she’s interviewing for a field producer position in DC and Jim just got promoted at ACN in Atlanta! How will their long-distance relationship work out? And Charlie (Sam Waterston) died.  For me he was the glue for the show, so maybe it helped to have him die as the series ended. But I have to admit that I cried. 

Switched at Birth cast

Switched at Birth cast

I recently also binge-watched another series on Netflix, “Switched at Birth.” Not nearly as well written or acted as “The Newsroom,” but the story-line was unique and I was sucked in. Again, when it ended, I found myself wondering what would happen next for Bay, Daphne, Emmett, Toby, and their families? I was fascinated by the partly deaf cast and the ASL (American Sign Language), which I realized I was learning a bit as I watched each episode. I’m excited that they plan to air 10 new episodes beginning in January 2017 (ABC Family) but now I’m wondering if I’ll watch one each week, or wait until they’re over and binge-watch all 10 of them?

Now I find myself wondering also what I’m going to read next. Having just finished a wonderful (nonfiction) book, Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, by Richard Grant, I also didn’t want it to end! I’m looking at three books next to my “reading chair” in my office and considering how well it will work to read all three at once: Robert Walker (a novel about a homeless man in Memphis)by Corey Mesler, A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (Pat Conroy); and A Charmed Life, the 1955 novel by Mary McCarthy, author of The Group. I’ve already read parts of the Conroy book, and I’m excited to see his wife, Cassandra King, who wrote the introduction, this Thursday night at the Thacker Mountain Radio Show at Off Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. It’s the two novels that I might have to read one at a time. Here goes. Have a great week, everyone!

American Happiness

51aq7DWULpLMy friend Jennifer Horne recently told me about a wonderful poet who just released her first volume of poetry—American Happiness. Jacqueline Trimble did graduate work at the University of Alabama with Jennifer (another excellent poet who also writes prose) and Jennifer knew I would love her poems. She was right.

Jacqueline opens the book with these sentences in her preface, “How My Mother Taught Me to Write Poems”:

My mother was a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights, had a cross burned on her lawn, drove students to Lanier, a local high school, to integrate it and was sued along with CBS for comments she made on television. She was unafraid, dignified, and determined.

That’s how I would describe her poetry in this powerful book—unafraid, dignified, and determined. Jacqueline was the only black child the first year in her elementary school in Montgomery, Alabama. On her journey to the successful woman she is today, she experienced the dark underbelly of racism in the South and exposes it with brilliant verse in this collection.

But before we get to the section that deals most directly with racial issues, we are hit squarely in the gut and the heart with her reflections on the death of her mother with “The Day After Her Mother Died” and “Things That Are Lost.” These were particularly powerful for me, since I lost my own mother just five months ago. When she says, “I have lost the sound/of my mother’s voice,” I thought immediately about my own mother’s voice, trying to call it back, which I can still do. I even hear it in my own voice at times.

Jacqueline appeals to all our senses with “Church Women” (I can see, hear, and smell this one) and to our sense of place in “The Geography of Passion.” And she builds a world for her readers in “A Woman Tells the History of Her People” before sending us into the darkest parts of that world in the next section of the book, “American Happiness.”

Perhaps the strongest poem in this section is “The Klan Panhandles for Donations at the Intersection of Court Street and the Southern Bypass.” In my naiveté (although I did grow up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s) I could not have imagined this scene in Tuskegee, Alabama. But I did see a cross burning in a front yard in Jackson once, in 1964. My eighth grade boyfriend’s family had moved to Jackson from somewhere up North. I think his father did something to piss off the Klan, but I never understood what it was.

2a8d61f4-05ad-4d1a-a420-1cb274712e5eIn her title poem for the book, “American Happiness,” Jacqueline juxtaposes the fictional town of Mayberry with the real towns she grew up in. In Mayberry, she says, “folks were never colored/—not even black and white—/but beige, khaki,/a little gray.” The gray fades quickly in her next poem, “How To Survive As a Black Woman Everywhere in America Including the Deep South.”

Jacqueline Allen Trimble is an associate professor of English and chairperson of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama. She is a Cave Canem fellow and the recipient of a 2017 literary arts fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. American Happiness is her first book. I’m sure it won’t be her last, as we all need to hear more from this brave and gifted writer. As Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama says, “It is cause for celebration that Ms. Trimble is making poetry that is timely and timeless, elegant and brutal, wise and innocent.”


American Happiness is a MUST READ for everyone who grew up in the South, lives in the South, and even for our neighbors in the rest of the country who care about the rights of all people. Of course these issues have been addressed elsewhere, but not with the power of poetry like Jacqueline’s. Write on, Jackie.

Why I Don’t Hate Doing Laundry

This morning I did four loads of laundry while reading a wonderful new book of poetry by Jacqueline Allen Trimble, American Happiness. (Watch for a review soon!) I was so inspired that I stopped and wrote a poem myself. I’m not a “real” poet, but sometimes I like to explore the genre. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Jonathan, age 7 months, March 1978

Jonathan, age 7 months, March 1978

Why I Don’t Hate Doing Laundry

by Susan Cushman

 

The laundry sorter stands between bedroom

and bath—its four neat containers

keeping our soiled items in order:

Darks. Whites. Perma-press. And

dress shirts to take to the cleaners.

 

I use a woven basket to transport

one load at a time to the laundry room;

It is the same basket that our first child

played in, almost forty years ago—a

memory captured in a photograph

that fills my heart with love on laundry day.

 

Even the darks will be sorted before

they enter the shiny front-loading machines—the nicest

ones we have ever had—which came with the house;

Sorting the darks? Isn’t that a bit anal?

Not when you consider that some are heavy

and others are light and need a shorter dry time.

 

The perma-press wants the lightest touch—only

fifteen minutes in the dryer and then on to

hangers right away, my hands smoothing collars

and shaking out the tiny wrinkles that remain

before they return to my husband’s closet

for another day, another trip, another meeting.

 

Whites are easy—warm, warm, white I told

our children when they were young;

cold, cold colors for everything else.

And thirty minutes on warm to dry and fluff

before the task of folding—taught to me

by my husband over forty years ago,

when he also showed me how to iron.

Skills he learned in childhood.

 

I do miss the smell of clothes warmed by the sun

on the clothesline I used as a newly wed;

Like the one my mother used—or sometimes

the maid—when I was young.

And so I often smell the white tee shirts and

warm towels as I pull them from the dryer,

hoping for a memory of those sunshiny days.

 

So much chaos in the world and sometimes

in our lives today, leaving me screaming

for order—for something I can control—even

if it’s only clothing and household linens.

I tried to control our children but now they

have their own families, their own chaos,

their own laundry. I wonder if they remember

warm warm white and cold cold colors.

Wiggle Those Hips

A Century of FashionI live about 15 minutes from a wonderful place—The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Sometimes I go there alone, to take my time, wandering slowly through the galleries where the permanent collection always reveals something new and the temporary exhibitions are as refreshing as the chef’s special at a favorite restaurant. But yesterday I was invited to go there with a new friend who just moved in across the street from me. Judy had two tickets to the museum’s fundraiser, “A Century of Fashion: Part II.”

BrooksAs we walked in the front door, there wasn’t really time to gaze at any art, as my friend introduced me to her fellow members of the museum’s league. And even as we made our way to the auditorium where the fashion show would be held, there were models wandering around the galleries, like this wonderful young couple, Terel and Chrisla Key, who are from my hometown, Jackson, Mississippi.

As the show progressed, I found myself envying the models (and their figures, including many who are older than me) and thinking back about how I’ve always loved to dress up. From the dresses my grandmother made me for piano recitals and school plays in elementary school, to high school and college formals, and the “flower child” wedding gown and hat I chose for my 1970 wedding. (The bridesmaids wore dotted swiss bell-bottomed pants and tunics. It was a hippie fashion show for sure.) Even now, I enjoy shopping at small boutiques so much ore than chain stores and big department stores, although the larger shops to seem to accommodate my fuller figure these days.

Olivia Lewis (l) and Carolyn Springfield-Harvey (r)

Olivia Lewis (l) and Carolyn Springfield-Harvey (r)

One thing I loved about this show at the Brooks was the way the “women of a certain age” carried themselves in those elegant vintage dresses and high heels. And the furs! Growing up in Mississippi, I was always amazed at how many women (like my father’s mother and my own mother) wore fur in the few weeks of winter when it was cold enough. Two of my neighbors—Olivia Lewis and Carolyn Springfield-Harvey, were among the six or eight fur models at the show, and they truly were elegant.

babbie lovettThe woman who organized and moderated the show, Babbie Lovett, is in her eighties. She wore her gray hair pulled straight back into a long, skinny ponytail, which glistened against her elegant black gown. She hardly looked at a note as she took us on a journey through the history of fashion for the past hundred years, in honor of the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2016. Her passion was evident as she described each decade and the things that informed fashion year by year, and then each outfit with beautiful prose. At times I found myself looking at her instead of the models on stage, wondering what my life would be like in twenty years. Would I still love clothes and enjoy them as part of the beauty of art in our culture? I wanted to be her when I grow up.

Whenever I visit New York City I always look forward to seeing the current exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Near the end of 2017 MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art), also in NYC, will open a new exhibit titled “Items: Is Fashion Modern.” The exhibit will feature 99 garments and accessories that have had a strong impact on history and society in the 20th and 21st centuries, and even today. I love that these museums consider clothing—whether costumes, haute couture, or ready-to-wear—to be a form of art.

 

Memphian Paul Thomas, curator of the new Orange Mound Art Gallery, helped produce the show. I loved seeing so many volunteers and independent contractors at the Brooks Museum this weekend participate as hostesses, flower arrangers, caterers, organizers, promoters, and models. The spirit was festive, and I left with my mood lifted and my love for all things beautiful rewarded. And yes, maybe I even wiggled my hips a little more as I walked out of the museum, although I was wearing cowboy boots instead of heels (which hurt my injured feet). I found myself holding my shoulders back and my chin up, while checking my posture along with my reflection in the glass when I exited the building. I found myself thinking about Madeleine L’Engle’s words (maybe she was quoting Jean Rhys), “We all feed the lake.”

I Can Sleep When I’m Dead

He Qi. Christ in the House of Mary and MarthaChinese, ca.2005

He Qi. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
Chinese, ca.2005

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about Barbara Crafton’s “almost daily eMos” from her online site, “The Geranium Farm.” Crafton takes a work of art and reflects on it in these posts, and I look forward to them every day. Today’s post shows a contemporary Chinese painting by He Qi, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” As Crafton reminds the reader of the scriptural account of these two sisters and their different approaches to serving Christ as a visitor in their home, I thought about how I have played each role during different seasons of my life—sometimes the busy Martha, serving my family and volunteering for everything at church, and sometimes the contemplative Mary, metaphorically sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Crafton shares an essay she wrote earlier, “Lazybones,” as part of her reflection on Mary’s seeming laziness set against Martha’s physical acts of serving. I love these words from Crafton’s essay:

People who sit and read—anything—are honoring their Mary selves. I am sure that starting anywhere, even with the silliest of novels, is just fine: the efficiency you build as a reader and your growing sophistication as a person will lead you toward more substantial fare, and to grow in knowledge of any kind is to grow closer to God.

During a more intense spiritual season of my life, I only read religious books. I must have devoured fifty volumes by early Church fathers, monastics, mystics, church historians, and theologians during a two-year period in the mid 1990s. I withdrew from “the world” in the sense that I also didn’t listen to secular music and rarely watched television. When I came out of this season, I found myself starved for good literature, good music, and good theater, movies and television drama. As I began to write seriously, my thirst for reading increased. It was as if the words I devoured in novels, memoirs, and essay collections had become the fuel for my own work. That’s still true today.

indexI couldn’t go to sleep last night. I went to bed around 10:30, but I had another bout of “monkey mind” and just couldn’t turn it off. So I got up around 1 and read until about 2:30 this morning. I think I finally fell asleep around 3 a.m. My current read is British travel writer Richard Grant’s amazing book, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta. It’s about the move he made from New York City to the small Delta town of Pluto, Mississippi, where he discovered what he calls the best-kept secret in America. And because I probably have ADD and usually read two to three books at a time, I’m also reading Barbara Crafton’s short book, The Courage to Grow Old, which is a soulful reality check for those of us in our sixth decade and beyond.

Sometimes, as a writer, I just sit. Yes, I sit and read, but sometimes I just sit. This would appear lazy to someone who doesn’t understand that sitting still is part of a writer’s work. This sitting can take place in front of a blank page on a computer screen, or on a bench by the Mississippi River, just a few blocks from my house. It can take place in my living room, or (maybe especially) when I’m driving alone on a trip. I rarely turn on the radio when I drive, enjoying the familiar or new scenery, but also allowing my mind to wander in a way that it rarely does when I’m at home. I’ll be doing that tomorrow, as I drive over to Little Rock to visit a friend. And although it’s not part of the Mississippi Delta, the miles of flat fields and the occasional crop duster flying over my head on Highway 40 between Memphis and Little Rock will remind me of Grant’s life down in Pluto, Mississippi, and the lessons he learned there.
So I’ll walk through my Friday a bit sleep-deprived but filled with images and words that feed my soul. Like Jason Michael Carroll says, I can sleep when I’m dead.

The Altar and the Portico: Gallery Art and Icons

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart. 2012.

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart. 2012.

Just read an amazing (but very long) article in The Orthodox Arts Journal:

“The Altar and The Portico (pt. 2): Gallery Art” by Aidan Hart. Subtitles tell more: THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR… The Relationship of Orthodox Iconography and Gallery Art.

Hart was a secular artist before becoming Orthodox and pursuing iconography. He worked as a sculptor within the Anglican/Episcopal church. Here’s a bit about what was driving him:

As a Christian I wanted this spirituality to embrace the material world, not to be a flight from it. I felt that this incarnational approach was all the more important in a secular age which worshipped matter and where one could not assume any prior knowledge of Christianity.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Hart’s move towards iconography mirrors some of my own interests, although his was on a professional level:

To abstract means literally to “draw out”, and in its original meaning it denotes the discovery and manifestation of the essence of the subject, and not departure from reality as it tends to be understood today.

The art most influential for me at this stage was Egyptian and African work. Although perhaps too disembodied, too extreme in their abstraction, these sculptures helped me to reach some conclusions about how to indicate the spiritual. Most notably I learned the importance of a strong vertical axis or elongation; stillness rather than agitated movement; and emphasis on the eyes. Constantine Brancusi and Modigliani were also influences.

I’ve always been a fan of abstract art. I’ve never thought about why I like Modigliani so much, but I also liked his work before I studied iconography. Hart eventually visited some Orthodox monks in New Zealand—one of who was an iconographer—and found what he had been searching for. He became Orthodox in 1983 and began writing icons. And then he began to wonder how spiritual art could find a place in galleries:

For me personally there are two types of artwork that do this: that which depicts suffering but with compassion, and that which suggests the world transfigured by light…. So first, compassionate art. Such works can help us see the divine image beneath suffering, and even behind ignorant acts. They show us that what makes us capable of suffering is also what makes us human.

Then he writes about the world transfigured by light:

Another form of threshold art is the art of illumination. Ascetic writers both East and West describe three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination and union… Icons indicate this luminous grace symbolically by such things as gold lines on trees, furniture and garments, and of course also haloes and golden backgrounds.

I’ve only touched on the treasures in this article, so I hope that if you’re interested in art and/or spirituality, you’ll give it a read. There are also lots of terrific illustrations of Hart’s work in the article. Enjoy!

Attic Treasures: “Patsy Ann” and “Cissy”

Patsy Ann

Patsy Ann

I was in the garage Sunday afternoon, staring at the shelves and stacks of boxes I want/need to purge, when a small box labeled “Susan’s dolls” caught my eye. Susan’s dolls? Seriously? This box probably hadn’t been opened in 30-40 years, traveling from house to house, from attic to attic, for several decades. I opened it and there were two dolls:

Effanbee 2First an Effanbee “Patsy Ann” baby doll that I believe belonged to my mother (from the 1930s) and then to me. I think it’s funny that the brand is “Effanbee” and my mother’s name was “Effie.” I found the brand and name across the doll’s upper back. I don’t know if she’s wearing a dress that was hers originally, or one of my grandmother’s creations. I do remember Mamaw (my mother’s mother) teaching me to sew dresses for this doll when I visited her in Meridian, Mississippi, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her eyes have faded to a creepy color, and her arms and legs are barely attached to her body. It’s kind of amazing to think that this doll is almost 100 years old!

Christmas 1957, when I got "Cissy," my Madam Alexander doll.

Christmas 1957, when I got “Cissy,” my Madam Alexander doll.

Then there’s a Madam Alexander doll I got for Christmas in 1957, when I was 6 years old. I did a bit of research and determined that this is a “Cissy” doll, wearing a lavender taffeta dress and short jacket, carrying a glass purse and wearing strappy lavender heels. Her hair is intact, and her bright blue eyes are still beautiful. Here’s a description I found online:

Cissy is still beautiful, 59 years after I got her.

Cissy is still beautiful, 59 years after I got her.

Cissy, released in 1955, was the first of the modern fashion dolls. What set Cissy apart as something new and different was her mature figure with high-heeled feet. She was an expensive doll at the time, and today a dressed doll in mint condition commands a very high price.

Patsy Ann 2Cissy was the most prominent doll in Alexander’s catalog from 1955 through 1959. In 1960, however, she took a back seat to the new “Playpal” type dolls, and was missing from the catalog altogether, although she was still available and was also being advertised under other names.

Cissy has been reissued in recent years in many glamorous outfits.

So, I can see this isn’t going to be a quick fix—purging these boxes. I just spent an hour on this one box that only had two dolls inside! There are about 40 large plastic bins and probably that many or more cardboard boxes in the garage and also in an upstairs storage room inside our house. My goal is to go through all of these (and get rid of about 90% of the contents) before we retire to Denver—possibly in five years. I haven’t found the box(es) with photographs yet—the pictures that aren’t in photo albums. Going through old photos and deciding which ones to digitalize, keep, or toss won’t be a quick process.

But at least I’ve made a start. One down. 99-ish to go!

Families Caring for an Aging America

Families Caring report coverMy book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, will be out in February. I’ve been researching ideas for marketing, and I’m especially interested in speaking to groups who have a special interest in Alzheimer’s, like caregivers.

My husband, who is a physician, just sent me this link to a report called “Families Caring for an Aging America,” from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (from September 13). The report was written by Richard Schulz and Jill Eden, Editors; Committee on Family Caregiving for Older Adults; Board on Health Care Services; Health and Medicine Division; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

You can download a PDF of the full report here.

Here’s a summery of the report from the National Academies:

At least 17.7 million individuals in the United States are providing care and support to an older parent, spouse, friend, or neighbor who needs help because of a limitation in their physical, mental, or cognitive functioning. The circumstances of individual caregivers are extremely varied. They may live with, nearby, or far away from the person receiving care. The care they provide may be episodic, daily, occasional, or of short or long duration. The caregiver may help with household tasks or self-care activities, such as getting in and out of bed, bathing, dressing, eating, or toileting, or may provide complex medical care tasks, such as managing medications and giving injections. The older adult may have dementia and require a caregiver’s constant supervision. Or, the caregiver may be responsible for all of these activities.  With support from 15 sponsors, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an expert committee to examine what is known about the nation’s family caregivers of older adults and to recommend policies to address their needs and help to minimize the barriers they encounter in acting on behalf of an older adult. The resulting report, Families Caring for an Aging America, provides an overview of the prevalence and nature of family caregiving of older adults as well as its personal impact on caregivers’ health, economic security, and overall well-being. The report also examines the available evidence on the effectiveness of programs and interventions designed to support family caregivers. It concludes with recommendations for developing a national strategy to effectively engage and support them.

On the one hand, it’s sad that we need a national strategy to support caregivers—which speaks to the fact that so many people are living longer and therefore need help, whether they have Alzheimer’s or other issues. On the other hand, I’m glad to see the National Academies focusing on developing the support so many caregivers need now, and will continue to need in the future.

In Appendix G of the report, “Caregiving Stories,” one daughter expresses frustration about issues similar to what I faced when Mom broke her hip:

I am so angry that my head might explode. At about 5:30, I was handed a bunch of papers by the head of the rehab department at the hospital where my mom has started physical therapy. We all thought this was a great idea. But apparently her Medigap policy denied this coverage. I have requested a ‘fast track’ appeal. She has already started the rehab work 2x a day. I hope they keep going with the treatment while this nightmare unfolds. I hate this.

And later, the same daughter deals with her mother’s risk of falling since she ignores the alarm on her bed and wheelchair (which I also went through with my mother):

Mom did well in physical therapy, on her second day. She walked up and down the hall with a walker, according to her roommate, a former home health aide herself. I have one question. She keeps getting up out of bed, even though her bed and wheelchair are alarmed. The alarms don’t phase her. It doesn’t seem to stick when she is told to stay in bed, or not to stand up…. The staff come in to help, but a momentary delay could produce another fall (god forbid) …

I’m so glad this report is coming out, and hope that it will be helpful to many people. My mother’s journey is over (she died in May) but millions of others can benefit, and I can’t help but wonder if I—and other caregivers—will be the on the receiving end of this care one day.

Southern Festival of Books: A Special Ten-Year Anniversary

SFB_2016This year’s Southern Festival of Books is this weekend in Nashville, Tennessee. I have several friends serving on panels or giving readings, including J. T. Ellison, Karen Harrington, Lee Martin, Jolina Petersheim, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Shellie Tomlinson. I’m also excited that my friends Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson, who will also be guest presenters at a literary salon I’m hosting tomorrow night in our home here in Memphis, will be presenters there this year.

SFB 2006But today I’m remembering festivals past—especially the first one I ever attended, the last year the festival venue was here in Memphis, October 13-15, 2006. Ten years ago tomorrow, my life was changed forever, as I met a number of authors who would become friends and mentors, including Lee Smith, Cassandra King, Jennifer Horne, Wendy Reed, and Beth Ann Fennelly. I wrote about this event in my essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which was published in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press 2012) edited by Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed. Here’s an excerpt:

In October of 2006 I attended the Southern Festival of Books at the Cook Convention Center, just a few minutes from my home in midtown Memphis. The program boasted a few of my favorite authors, especially Cassandra King, whose book, The Sunday Wife, had begun to soften the hard layers with which I had adorned my public persona. Meeting Cassandra, sharing my story with her, and having her write in my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is,” were defining moments for me. I loved her even more after I read her essay, “The Making of a Preacher’s Wife,” in the first volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. She described her struggle—“balancing a Southern Belle, good-little-girl persona with that of an artsy wannabe who smoked cigarettes and dreamed of being a writer.” And she wrote candidly about her years as a minister’s wife, during which she “wrote devotionals and religious poems and church pageants, not out of devotion or true piety, but to please and impress others.” Finally she “went underground” and wrote a novel about a preacher’s wife who questions her life on many levels, stating that “the writing of it was my salvation.”

As I listened to Cassandra and the other women on the panel for All Out of Faith, my heart was beating so loudly in my chest that I was afraid everyone in the room could hear it. On the inside flap of the book’s cover, I read these words: “The South is often considered patriarchal, but as these writers show, Southern culture has always reserved a special place for strong women of passion.” That’s me, I thought. And in the Afterword the book’s editors, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, wrote about how “spirituality is not removed from ordinary life but infuses it,” and about the need to “go inside myself, below the roles I’d taken on as layers.” Yes.

During the festival I also met Lee Smith, who was reading from her latest work, On Agate Hill, and the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, who paints a vivid picture of her own take on womanhood and spirituality in her poetry. She was reading from her latest book of poems, Tender Hooks. My favorite poem in that book is “Waiting For the Heart to Moderate,” in which she describes what it feels like to be “all edges, on tender hooks” at every stage of a woman’s life, and to still feel the music “booming in her breastbone.” I’m much older than Beth Ann, but I still hear that music, and like her, in my own efforts “to free it,” I also worry that I “might do something stupid.” But maybe my middle-aged heart is finally learning to moderate. 

As the festival ended, I found myself thinking, where have these women been all my life? I hurried home with my autographed treasures and poured myself into the strong but tender female wisdom between the pages of their works. I rediscovered Sue Monk Kidd’s writing, especially The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. And while my Orthodox embrace of the Mother of God differs from Kidd’s approach to the “feminine imagery of the Divine,” I benefited greatly from her wisdom concerning Favored Daughters who “carry the wound of feminine inferiority,” trying to make up for it by setting “perfectionist standards . . . a thin body, happy children, an impressive speech, and a perfectly written article.”

Or maybe a perfectly crafted book. Three short months after my encounter with these strong women of faith, I completed a novel…. My current novel-in-progress features three strong women of passion as its protagonists. I don’t know if the writing of it will be my salvation, but it is, at a minimum, an effort towards wholeness.

As the late Madeleine L’Engle said: “Until we have been healed, we do not know what wholeness is: the discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose or write, is an effort towards wholeness. . . . The important thing is to remember that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us and which we must humbly serve, and in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.”

Learning to serve the gift through writing and painting is bringing wondrous newness into my life every day. Once it surfaced in an essay about how anger blocked me from painting icons, and how the beach, a dream, and a soft-rock song helped me get unblocked. At other times that newness has shown up to cheer me on as I embrace the darker aspects of my Mississippi childhood by laying down difficult chapters of my novel-in-progress. Sometimes I feel its presence during the sacrament of confession, when I’ve been up all night facing down my demons as I write, often chasing them with vodka or wine. Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons—themselves a form of life interrupted—is part of my offering to God.

SFB 2012As I read those words and remember that festival from ten years ago this week, I am so thankful for the amazing friends I have found in my writing life. And for the folks who work hard to put on these literary festivals like the Southern Festival of Books. I returned to the festival in 2012 (when it was back in Nashville) to serve on a panel for Circling Faith. These event posters adorn a wall in my office, reminding me of the importance of gathering with fellow writers and readers to celebrate the written word. I’m hoping to participate in several of these in 2017 as I give birth to my first books. Stay tuned as the journey continues.

Columbus Day: Cars, Computers and Cousine

This will be quick because I’ve been away from the house since 9:30 a.m. (and just got home at 3) and have lots of work to do on novel revisions…. But just for fun, here’s what we’ve done so far this Columbus Day: (federal holiday so my hubby is home)

venzaCars

We just bought my 2014 Toyota Venza, which we had been leasing for three years. Paperwork took almost 2 hours… kind of like being in a lawyer’s office with so many forms and copies! But it’s done now, and I still love my car. Toyota discontinued the Venza, which is crazy, so I guess I just bought a collector’s item.

FullSizeRender-1Computers

We both have Macs and we both have issues with them. I’ve had mine since 2009 and Bill got his in 2011. The folks at the Apple Store (which is a half hour or more away and hard to get an appointment and sometimes you still have to wait) told me about Computerlab of Memphis when I went in a few weeks ago. We LOVE the owners, Jeremy Winsett and Laurie Jenkins. It’ a small mom and pop business run by really smart and friendly people. We both got the help we need and they didn’t make us feel stupid. Check them out at 685 N. Mendenhall Road if you live in or near Memphis.

CharCousine

Char! My favorite restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi just opened a second venue in Memphis. Today was actually their opening day, and we went there for a delicious lunch. We had a great visit with the owner, Ben Brock (from Jackson) and the decor, service, and food were great! Check them out at 413 S. Highland, in the new “Highland Row” building, just south of Central.

Home now and back to work on novel revisions. And then I’ve got two manuscripts to critique for tomorrow night’s writing group. However you’re spending it, Happy Columbus Day!

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