A Letter to My Children

open-letterA friend recently sent me a link to a blog titled “God’s Grace and Mom’s Alzheimer’s,” and specifically to a post from August of 2013: “What I’ll Say to My Children If I’m Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s.” I agree with many of her sentiments and recommend the blog to anyone caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. Here’s a sample:

I fear having AD someday myself. (My mind already concerns me too often.)  But if that day comes … what I would say to them is this…. Pray and trust God to guide you.  Get as much help as you can.  I don’t want you to sacrifice your life plans or family for my sake, but I want to always be part of your life.

If you need to find a nursing home for me, I understand.  Pray about it and seek wisely. And then visit me often. Even if I don’t seem to know you, believe in your heart that part of me does.  Hold my hand and talk to me.  Tell me all about your life.  Sing to me and read the Bible to me, please.  Brush my hair and tell me memories of your childhood.

Everything will be better in heaven.  Meanwhile, when I can’t talk anymore; just know that I love you forever and that being a mom to you was an honor and the delight of my life.

What powerful words. I wish I had known about this blog during the decade or so that I was caregiving for Mom, because I think we are kindred spirits. I can’t find the author’s name on the blog (or the blog’s Facebook page) but I’m sending kudos to her, and also saying, “Memory Eternal” since I just read that her mother recently died. Maybe she and Effie are exchanging stories in heaven.

Two Kinds of Happiness

meaning happinessIn Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, there’s an interesting question and answer in Dan Ariely’s column, “Ask Ariely.” The column title is “The Two Types of Happiness.”

(Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and is the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight and also the co-founder of BEworks.)

The person who wrote in asked Dan why things that make him immediately happy—like watching basketball or going out drinking—don’t give him a lasting feeling of contentment, while the things that feel more deeply meaningful to him—like his career or writing a book—don’t give him much daily happiness.

I loved this question. It’s a dilemma I face daily if not hourly or minute-by-minute. I’ve been so busy the past few weeks with my book tour that I haven’t had many unscheduled days in which to be able to make these choices, but yesterday afternoon was one of them. My husband was out of town and I had caught up on paperwork and domestic chores. My foot is healing (I fell and tore a ligament in my ankle a couple of weeks ago) so I couldn’t use it as an excuse to watch TV all day and night, but that’s still what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to sit at my computer and work on my new novel.

Ariely addresses my quandary in his column:

Happiness comes in two varieties. The first is the simple type, when we get immediate pleasure from activities such as playing a sport, eating a good meal and so on…. The second type of happiness is more complex and elusive. It comes from a feeling of fulfillment that might not be connected with daily happiness but is more lastingly gratifying.

I thought about his words as I reflected on how “happy” I have been these past few weeks on a book tour for my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Each event—whether in a book store or a private home—has brought much immediate satisfaction. Reading and signing my book and discussing it with an audience makes me happy. But that book didn’t write itself. It didn’t just happen while I was watching TV or out drinking or doing other “fun” things.

So as I sat down to work on my new novel yesterday afternoon, I thought more about something Ariel shard in his column:

The social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues distinguish between happiness and meaning. They see the first as satisfying our needs and wishes in the hear-and-now, the latter as thinking beyond the present to express our deepest values and sense of self. They found, unsurprisingly, that pursing meaning is often associated with increased stress and anxiety.

No wonder I don’t want to sit down and write my next book. What if I can’t do it? What if it isn’t any good? What if….

I often seem to come back to seeking balance in various areas of my life, and maybe this is another one of those situations. Maybe I need to balance the times of “fun” with the times of hard work (as I write this I feel like you are thinking, “Duh, of course!”) in order to experience both happiness and meaning in my life. But Ariely’s advice isn’t about balance; he leans towards the more difficult path:

Simply pursuing the first type of happiness isn’t the way to live; we should aim to bring more of the second type of happiness into our lives, even if it won’t be as much fun every day.

Again, this isn’t rocket science, and it might sound obvious, but I needed this reminder right now.

I Arise Today: Celebrating a Former Slave

St PatrickI arise today through God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me.—Saint Patrick of Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Day is often filled with pretty intense partying, although it usually falls during the solemn time of Great Lent. Rivers died green. Pub crawls. Parades. I like a fun celebration as much as the next person, but I also hope that folks will take a moment today to thank God for the saint they are celebrating.

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, who sends out “Almost-Daily Emos” from The Geranium Farm, says:

Patrick was the first Christian writer to oppose slavery. Its existence as part of the social fabric is assumed without protest in the New Testament, and the theologians of the early Christian centuries had other things on their minds. He came to this position understandably enough: he had BEEN a slave.

So today I thank God for this brave and humble man who fought for human rights.

Have a joyful and safe Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone. I’m off to Little Rock for another literary event for Tangles and Plaques, this time at WordsWorth Books. 

A Thirty-Year Journey (So Far)

Bishop Antoun (left) and Father John Troy Mashburn (right) help Father Basil Cushman at his ordination on March 15, 1987.

Bishop Antoun (left) and Father John Troy Mashburn (right) help Father Basil Cushman at his ordination on March 15, 1987.

Thirty years ago today, my husband, Dr. William/Father Basil Cushman, was ordained into the priesthood of the Orthodox Christian Church, specifically the Antiochian Archdiocese. I did a blog post about this in 2010, “Axios! He is Worthy!”

Our recently retired pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, was also ordained that day, as were several other priests and deacons from St. John in Memphis and St. Peter in Jackson, Mississippi.

This happened the day after a group of about 70 of us “pilgrims” were Chrismated into the Orthodox Church. For some of us, it was the end of a seventeen-year spiritual journey, one that was often wrought with peril, but a journey that ended (and in some ways began) with the blessed gift of finding the pearl for which we had been searching all those years.

Bishop Antoun assists Father John Troy Mashburn during his ordination, March 15, 1987.

Bishop Antoun assists Father John Troy Mashburn during his ordination, March 15, 1987.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a number of years, you know that there were some times when I was frustrated with my church home. Honestly, I still get frustrated at times. Orthodoxy is an ancient tradition (some say it was the first/original Christian church) and sometimes the very “rules” that have helped hold it together for centuries seem to hold too tightly. I’m not an obedient person, and I have always struggled against anything restrictive. But today I’m finding my way in this beautiful faith after thirty years.

Tonight at St. John Orthodox Church—my parish here in Memphis since 1988—we will celebrate our clergy who were ordained thirty years ago. Most of them have served unselfishly while maintaining full time secular jobs, while others have sacrificed those secular careers to serve the church full time. Either way, they are all “full time” servants, and we thank God for them.

And so I say again, as we declared thirty years ago with Bishop Antoun ordained these men, “Axios!” which means “He is worthy!”

This Close to Happy

9780374140366_custom-bf6b7b4c35093d0b7d5c541f859ae01e511360bb-s200-c85I just finished reading my 6th book of 2017—This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression by Daphne Merkin. Looking at my list so far this year, I’ve read two novels and four nonfiction books. I’m getting in the mood for some southern fiction next, and have recently gotten interested (again) in Anne Rivers Siddons, probably because of Pat Conroy’s words about her in A Lowcountry Heart. I read a couple of her books many years ago, and now I’m thinking of reading one of her oldest books Heartbreak Hotel (1976), which is about growing up in the South in the 1950s. But I’ve also got a copy of The Girls of August. Maybe I’ll save that one for this summer. But for now, back to This Close to Happy.

Daphne Merkin is an accomplished writer, with regular contributions to The New Yorker, Elle, The New York Times and other publications. Her novel Enchantment won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for best novel on a Jewish Theme, and one of her two collections of essays was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Here’s an excellent review in the New York Times by Andrew Solomon.

And here’s an interview on NPR.

So I won’t write a review here, other than to say that I think this is an amazing book. I’ve read a fair amount of books about mental illness in general and depression in particular. This is one of the best. Merkin not only knows her stuff—from years of therapy and pharmaceutical treatment and detailed research—but she has also lived with this disease her whole life. Growing up in a home where she was abused by a nanny and never received even basic, minimal nurturing from her parents, she suffered clinical depression even as a child, through post-partum times, into young adulthood and middle age. And yet, she is still here. (She writes about suicide a lot in the book.)

One of my favorite quotes:

The opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness, but a state of relative all-right-ness.

There’s so much wisdom in that one sentence. When I’m depressed, I imagine a “high” I’m missing from life, not just a calm “normal,” whatever that might be. And being a writer, I’ve always assumed that I come by my depression honestly, as did Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and a plethora of others. As Merkin says:

It is by now well documented that nonlinear creative types, artists and writers in particular, often suffer form depression; whole books have been devoted to exploring the high incidence of both unipolar depression and bipolar depression in this group. Anywhere you look, there they are, the unhappy poets and painters, drinking or drugging themselves into a stupor….

Daphne Merkin

Daphne Merkin

I can relate. When I’m actively (and successfully) working on a creative project, I experience a bit of a high. But as soon as the project is finished or I’m floundering with what to do next, depression creeps in. What does Merkin say life has to offer at these times?

But perhaps I’ve all along underrated the pull of life itself, slyly offering up its enticements. I tend to give short shrift to these enticements when I’m sinking, but they are very real. They would include but are not limited to the supreme diversion of reading and the gratifications of friendship, the enveloping bond of motherhood and the solace to be found in small pleasures, such as an achy Neil Young son or finding the perfect oversized but not voluminous white shirt.

The things in life that entice me might not be all the same things that pull Merkin back from the edge, although some are similar. She’s not a spiritual person (not even a religious Jew, and doesn’t believe in an after life) like I am, so there’s that. Even at my darkest moments, I would never consider suicide. Instead I cower emotionally at home with bags of potato chips and excessive amounts of vodka or wine. Reading Merkin’s book doesn’t fill me with hope (not her intention, she says) but gives me a feeling of community with others who suffer depression. Mine is extremely mild compared to hers, but she would be the first to tell me that it’s mine, and not to diminish it.

So I give this book five stars. And I hope that Daphne Merkin has found a prolonged state of relative all-rightness. Actually, I’d love to picture her even closer to happy.

“There’s This Cute Boy”

WSJ articleWednesday’s Wall Street Journal had an excellent article in the Life & Arts section, “‘There’s This Cute Boy…’ Secrets to Getting Teens to Talk,” by Anne Marie Chaker. The article is about kids and their parents writing journals to each other, sometimes instead of talking, but hopefully to break the ice for difficult conversations.

The article reminded me of something I’ve blogged about before—the many letters I wrote to my grandmother during my childhood (in the 1950s) and into my teenage years and even the early years of my marriage. I felt “safe” telling my grandmother things I might not tell my mother—including how I felt when my mother and brother yelled at each other (which happened a lot, and I would go to my room and turn up the radio to block it out) but also poignant moments like my first kiss. I have a shoebox full of those letters, which are a treasure.

So sometime last year I started writing to my granddaughters who live in Denver, and receiving precious letters back from them, especially the older two, who are 6 and 7. Recent letters from these two were especially touching.

Grace (7) told me she is studying Black history in second grade. She said her teacher told them that there was slavery in Mississippi, and since I’m from Mississippi, she asked whether I knew any slaves when I was a little girl. I responded by explaining that I lived many years after the slaves were freed, but that unfortunately many Black people were still being treated unfairly when I was a little girl (and even now), and how important it is for us not to judge people by the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes (this granddaughter is Asian), or which country they are from.

Aslan1Anna (6) wrote a letter to Pops (my husband) asking him two questions: (1) What is your favorite color? And (2) What is your favorite animal? He answered her back: BLUE, and LION. Now, I’ve been married to this man for almost 47 years, and it never occurred to me to ask him either of these questions, so we had a revealing moment and discussion. Turns out he loves lions not only because they are majestic and beautiful, but because of the lion, “Aslan,” who represents Christ in the Narnia Chronicles. He has asked me to bring some of the Narnia books with us to the beach next month so he can read them to his granddaughters.

Today I know that “Face Time” (which we enjoy with all 4 granddaughters) has probably replaced hand written letters as the primary means of communication between the generations, but I plan to keep up the letter writing as long as my granddaughters will participate. There’s something really special about it. I feel a different kind of closeness in this exchange, and I hope they will keep responding to my letters!

Woozies and Glam and Flowers, Oh My!

What a fabulous birthday I’ve had. Dinner out on birthday eve with my sweet hubby last night. Visits from several friends today. Packages and cards in the mail. Phone calls and text messages from children. And about 150 Facebook birthday wishes. I am feeling the love. THANK YOU, everyone!

 

Flowers and cards.

Flowers and cards.

Pearls and feathers from sweet hubby.

Woozies to keep wine cold, from sweet Madeleine and Damon.

Woozies to keep wine cold, from sweet Madeleine and Damon.

Peacock martini glasses from Beth and her family. Perfect.

Peacock martini glasses from Beth and her family. Perfect.

Peacock sticker for my new MacBook Pro, selected for me by almost 5-year-old Gabby.

Peacock sticker for my new MacBook Pro, selected for me by almost 5-year-old Gabby.

Beautiful JJill necklace from Jason and his familiy. They know my taste!

Beautiful JJill necklace from Jason and his familiy. They know my taste!

Rolling a Joint on the Square in Oxford, Mississippi

rolling a jointSomeone sent me this hilarious sign they saw on Facebook. He sent it because this past Friday night I rolled a joint on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, following my reading of Tangles and Plaques at Square Books. The joint was my left ankle.  I had gone to dinner with a group of folks following the reading (with over 80 in attendance at Square Books!) and was walking back to my car when I missed the edge of a curb and fell. Thankfully I didn’t break a hip or hurt my neck or back or something more serious than my ankle.

And also thankfully it’s not broken. This morning’s x-ray shows some torn ligaments that should heal in a few weeks. Back in 2013 when I broke my other ankle and leg in a car wreck, I had two surgeries, wore a cast, then a walking boot. The walking boot was uncomfortable because Even Upsit made my stride uneven, I didn’t have any safe, flat shoes that were high enough. Now they ‘ve got this cool new thing called an “Even Up” that you put on the bottom of your shoe to make your feet at even heights. What a difference that makes!

I posted lots of pictures on Facebook from the event at Square Books Friday night, and also at Lemuria in Jackson on Saturday, so I’ll only repost one here. It was so much fun seeing several of my Tri Delt sorority sisters in Oxford (including my “big sister” whom I hadn’t seen since my wedding in 1970!) and several high school classmates and other friends and family in Jackson. Great reception at both Mississippi events. Thanks to everyone who helped organize them, and to everyone who came to the readings and bought books! Next event for Tangles and Plaques is a salon in a private home here in Memphis, then on to WordsWorth Books in Little Rock, Arkansas on the 18th. What a ride!

 

Ole Miss Tri Delt sisters: Julia Thornton, Gayle Gresham Henry, Susan Cushman, Jan Champion

Ole Miss Tri Delt sisters at Square Books in Oxford: Julia Thornton, Gayle Gresham Henry, Susan Cushman, Jan Champion

Taking Joyous Note of Each Moment

Pat Conroy and me in 2010.

Pat Conroy and me in 2010.

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of Pat Conroy’s death (March 4, 2016). Pat was my favorite author. I read all his books and saw all the movies based on his books. He was a master of literary fiction and packed a big emotional punch in all his work. Beautifully crafted sentences, paragraphs, and pages that I just kept turning. My favorite of his novels is Prince of Tides, but recently I have loved the collection of his blog posts and presentations in A Lowcountry Heart. Magic. Just magic. We all miss you, Pat!

I love these words from Pat’s Facebook page:

“Why do they not teach you that time is a finger snap and an eye blink, and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it, not wasting a single moment of its swift, breakneck circuit?”

Pat was just 70 when he left us… only four years older than I will be on my birthday next Wednesday. His words make me want to be more alert to life moment by moment.

Pat loved his readers, and spent lots of time with them at book signings, listening to their stories. Last night I had my first reading/signing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, at Burke’s Books in Memphis. Corey and Cheryl Mesler, owners, are dear friends and stalwart supporters of books and authors and readers. Corey is also an accomplished poet and novelist. I tried to remember to ask each person as I signed their books if they had an Alzheimer’s story, or if they were a caregiver. I don’t think I did a very good job of this, but I will try to do better as I continue on my “book tour”… to Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, at 5 p.m. tonight, and Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi, at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

I’ll close with a few photos from last night’s event at Burke’s Books. Have a great weekend everyone!

 

With Corey Mesler, owner of Burke's Books

With Corey Mesler, owner of Burke’s Books

Fr Alex Susan Fr Philip

signing for Pamela

Daphne and Sarah

Susan reading closeup

Tammy Susan Sarah

Susan with Sandy and Bill

Kay with Susan

Mansours

Madeleine, Daphne, Sue, Judy

books

The Reflective Present Tense

confusedwriter1I’ve just started writing a new novel. Without meaning to, I drafted the first few pages in present tense—the same thing I did initially with Cherry Bomb, my novel that’s coming out in October. But at some point I changed the entire novel to past tense, and it read more smoothly. So why is it I automatically revert to present tense when I begin a new one?

This article gives a fairly good argument for using past tense for novels, although it also says, “Of course, there are plenty of novels out there written in the present tense (more so in literary and mainstream fiction than genre fiction)….”

Since I tend to write for literary and mainstream rather than genre fiction, maybe I’m not on the wrong track.

This Writer’s Digest article, “The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense,” offers some food for thought.

I like what Matt Bell calls the “reflective present tense” in this article, “In Defense of the Present Tense,” which quotes several authors who teach or have taught writing:

I also use the present tense as a way of talking about the past, even though the speaker is really telling the story from the present. I think that’s a pretty common tactic, actually. I’m actually doing a similar thing in something I’m working on right now—the reflective present tense, which is the way both memory and trauma often work.

The “reflective present tense”… I think that’s what I’m after. Guess I’ll keep writing and see if I run into problems when I use flashbacks. It’s a process.

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