This is a big weekend for those of us who take Mary of Egypt as our patron saint, and for many others who look to her as a model of repentance. In the Orthodox Church, she is commemorated twice during Great Lent every year: April 1 (tomorrow) is her feast day, and the fifth Sunday of Lent, which falls on April 2 this year, is known as the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt. So, I’ll say “happy name day eve” to my sisters in Christ who are also her spiritual namesakes.
If you’re interested in reading more, here are some previous posts about St. Mary of Egypt:
“Turning Lead Into Gold” (2016)
“Holy Mother Mary Pray to God For Us” (From 2015, this post contains a prayer/poem I wrote to Mary of Egypt many years ago.)
“Forgive O Lord” (2014)
My novel, Cherry Bomb—which will be published this fall—focuses quite a bit on Mary of Egypt. There’s even a weeping icon of Saint Mary in the book, although I’ve never actually heard of one of her icons weeping. More often it is icons of the Mother of God that weep. (But it’s a novel, after all.) I’m excited that this image (above, right) will appear on the back cover of the book when it comes out. It’s a detail from an icon I wrote over ten years ago. My daughter-in-law, See Cushman, cropped it from the original and added the “tears” to make it appear that the icon is weeping, and the graphic designer working on the cover changed the background to gold and added the frame. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result, although my photo is a bit fuzzy and doesn’t do the image justice.
Today I thought I would share a sneak preview from Cherry Bomb. The following excerpt is from a scene in which Mare (protagonist) and Elaine deKooning (her art professor) are attending an opera about Saint Mary of Egypt written by John Tavener. I learned about this opera many years ago from a nun who was visiting Memphis to speak at our parish’s women’s retreat, and I was able to find a CD of the music. I hope it blesses you and raises your interest in the novel, which will be out in about six months!
Holy Mother Mary, Pray to God For Us.
Excerpt from Cherry Bomb, chapter 14:
As they entered the Wells Theatre on Saturday night, Mare and Elaine were greeted by materials, textures, and geometric angles that were part of its Art Moderne splendor. Intricate rectangular carvings repeated themselves along the walls. Gold leaf flickered off every surface. Even the curtain on the massive stage was itself a work of art—tapestries of shimmering gold and copper. The theater seated over a thousand patrons and boasted a state-of-the-art audio system. Just listening to the orchestra warming up sent chills down Mare’s spine. The music wasn’t familiar—it had a foreign, Middle Eastern sound—but even the concordant notes the musicians struck as they tuned their instruments simultaneously had an other-worldly beauty.
“Wow.” Mare had never seen anything like this before.
Elaine smiled. An usher handed them each a program and showed them to their seats. The cover of the program featured an icon of Mary of Egypt and Zosimas. They quickly read the Composer’s Note before the overture began, which was penned by John Tavener.
Mary’s door was wide open, even though her love was misdirected and distorted …
They looked at each other as they read, and then continued to read the rest of the program notes. Mare wondered how the words were hitting Elaine. She remembered how uncomfortable Elaine had been when they visited the Coptic church. What’s she thinking now?
Zosimas’s whole sound world becomes Mary’s. In her he sees ‘love’ and his own limitations. His world, once so dry, now in the dryness of the desert, flowers into what the Desert Fathers might have called “Uncreated Eros” or a hint of the Edenic state. In controlled ecstasy, they both ask each other to give the blessing.
“That’s what’s happening in your painting, isn’t it?” Elaine whispered.
Mare nodded and they continued reading Taverner’s comments:
“Mary of Egypt” is the intent to create an ikon in sound about Non-Judgement. In a sense, Zosimas loves again when through Mary he can dimly see the beauty of God—and who knows how far Mary has gone in her search for the unknowable and unobtainable in her forty solitary years in the desert? Holy Mary, pray to God for us.
The orchestra finished warming up and the lights dimmed. A group of women and men formed two parallel lines on the stage, representing the extensions of Mary and Zosimas. The women’s sensual movements were accompanied by a flute, wordlessly representing Mary whoring in Alexandria. The men were accompanied by the trombone and the primordial sound of the simantron—a wooden percussion instrument used in liturgical music (especially at monasteries) and sometimes with contemporary classical pieces. Each act was more powerful than the previous, building to a climax with the aria, “Bless.” The characters of Zosimas and Mary—without their extensions from early scenes—prostrated themselves on the ground in front of each other, crying out in song the solitary word, “Bless!” over and over.
Mare wasn’t prepared for how this would hit her—seeing the story she was growing more fascinated with by the day brought to life in such a powerful way on the stage. She felt some of the anger she’d hung onto over the years melt away as the words and music worked to soften her heart. Damn. She quickly brushed away tears, hoping Elaine hadn’t seen them. Sneaking a glance at Elaine, Mare saw that she wasn’t the only one weeping.
Then Mary levitated. The angels lifted her up—with help from nearly invisible wires hung from the stage ceiling—leaving a terrified and awestruck Zosimas to grieve her loss. The opera continued with the conclusion of their story: Zosimas found Mary dead in the desert a year later and buried her with help from a lion, who appeared tame in the presence of the saint’s remains.
A few weeks ago I started a new novel. It’s off to a slow start, for several reasons. For one thing, I’m still trying to decide whether to write it in “reflective present tense” or past tense—I’m leaning towards past tense now. And although I’ve got the complete story in my head, including the ending, I’ve still got some things to work out about the structure. Having revised my first novel MANY times, I’m hoping to get a better start on this one, even if takes a while to get out of the gate.
One thing that helps me when I’m writing is reading books by authors I admire, or who write to what I believe to be a similar audience. I’ve just finished two (quick reads) that fit the bill—Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel (1976) and The Girls of August (2014). Although both are character-driven in many ways (which I try to do with my fiction) they are also both page-turners. The relationships between the women in The Girls of August remind me very much of two other favorite books, Cassandra King’s The Same Sweet Girls and Lee Smith’s The Last Girls. Fun to read, and written straight to the heart, The Girls of August is inspiring my new novel, which will also focus primarily on women’s friendships, and is set in a coastal town.
But now I’m reading Elizabeth Berg’s historical novel, The Dream Lover (2015). I’m blown away by her prose, as well as the authority with which she uses historic details and settings. I’m sure she spent many hours on research, as much of the book is set in 19th century Paris, and involves the life of the writer, Aurore Dupin, who writes mostly under the pen name of George Sand. Her friends and lovers include Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Victor Hugo, Marie Dorval and more.
Berg wrote the book because she wanted to read a novel about George Sand and found that none existed. As I read I find myself thinking, over and over, “I want to write a book like this.” And I’m still thinking about it, although I haven’t found my heroine yet. And I’m not sure I’m ready to dive into that level of research right now. Maybe later. For now, I think I’ll follow the lives of those southern women on the Gulf coast, remaining in familiar territory, writing about “what I know.” But I could always change my mind. Stay tuned.
I recently watched an old Willie Nelson movie, “Honeysuckle Rose,” about Willie’s infamous road trips he took with his band. They kept playing his song, “On the Road Again,” and I can’t get it out of my head. I’ll probably be singing it next week when I get on the road again for another leg of my spring book tour. Where to this time?
Next Tuesday I’ll be headed down to Fairhope, Alabama, where I’ll have a reading/signing at Page & Palette (4 p.m. April 4) for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. My hosts will be my author friends, Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella. I love Fairhope and April will be a beautiful time of the year to be there!
Wednesday I’ll drive from Fairhope to New Orleans for an event at Garden District Book Shop for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (6 p.m. on April 5). I’ll be joined by my hostess, New Orleans resident and contributor to A Second Blooming, Emma Connolly, and two contributors from Jackson, Mississippi—Susan Marquez and NancyKay Wessman. Emma’s essay is about her “second blooming” as a shopkeeper on Magazine Street, where she owns Uptown Needle and Craftworks. Here’s Emma (on the left) selling a copy of A Second Blooming to one of her customers in the shop. (Can you tell this was during Mardi Gras?)
Thursday I’ll head back up I-55 to Jackson, Mississippi, for another event for A Second Blooming, again at Lemuria (5 p.m. on April 6). I’ll be joined by Jackson residents Susan Marquez and NancyKay Wessman, who will be sharing their stories of second bloomings after loss.
Two weeks from tomorrow I’ll drive up to Dyersburg (Tennessee) for the Dyersburg State Community College Women’s Conference (April 18) where I’ve been invited to speak about my journey as an author. I’ll talk about my writing and publishing career, and have an opportunity to sell copies of both Tangles and Plaques and A Second Blooming. This event usually attracts about 80-100 women from the Dyersburg area, and includes a luncheon and fashion show. I’m so happy to be included!
And that will wrap up my April book tour. Stay tuned next month to hear about the five events I have planned in May, with travels to Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, another event in Oxford (Mississippi), and two local events in the Memphis area. I’ll keep all of these posted on my EVENTS page (just click the link at the top of the home page of my web site) so you’ll know when I’ll be in your area.
I’ll close with a picture of me with the Memphis contributors to A Second Blooming, at our event at Memphis Botanic Garden yesterday. It was a beautiful day and lots of folks came out for the event (we sold 50 books!) and we had a great time. Thanks so much to everyone who came and purchased a book. I hope you LOVE it! And thanks to Chapter 16 for getting a review into the Commercial Appeal yesterday morning, just in time to bring in some more readers.
As always, thanks for reading. I can hear Willie strumming that guitar again….
My Orthodox friend, Lia Roussos Douglas, used to be a member at my parish here in Memphis, Saint John Orthodox Church. I was so sad when she moved back to her beloved Gulf Coast, although I completely understand her wanting to be there! It’s been wonderful keeping up with her on Facebook, and yesterday she posted something that touched me on many levels. I have asked her permission to publish it here. As we move into the second half of Lent (and prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation—March 25—with a liturgy and potluck at St. John tonight) my spirits are good. I’m not all down and out like I sometimes get during Lent. At the beginning of the season I said I was going to make this a Happy Lent, and so far, that’s working pretty well. Even though I fell and tore a ligament in my ankle. Maybe that’s just part of my cross this Lent.
So, today’s post is from Lia:
My sweet Em Lani was sharing with me last night all the good nuggets she has been learning at yoga teacher training this week. She was sharing about beliefs, for example “Why do I believe I need granite counter tops?” or “Why do I believe frizzy curly hair isn’t beautiful?” and are these actually universal truths?? Also, who molded my belief system? ALL this has to do with my happiness. She also was sharing about “triggers” we have that make us feel a certain way and how to make a conscientious effort to take note of why we are feeling that way. For me, for an easy example, I notice any time someone comments on my hair I get this dreaded feeling. So my hair is a trigger.
Anyway I digress, today in my spiritual reading, (somehow it ALWAYS ties into my life) I read THIS and it struck me as so profound friends. This week as it is midlent for me, half way there to the end and the Resurrection!!! My Church, my faith gives us THE CROSS. The cross of Christ to focus on and meditate on….. pick up our cross and follow him:
As always, St. Paul puts it very distinctly: “I am crucified to the world and the world is crucified to me.” So often, my burdens come from the fact that I judge myself by the standards of this society. The world defines what is necessary for happiness and I believe it. The world defines what is beautiful and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is moral and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is rich and what is poor, and I believe it. The world tells me what is brave and what is cowardly, and I believe it. The first work of the cross is to crucify me to this worldly propaganda and lunacy.—Father Barnabas, Orthodox on Purpose
Such wisdom!!! Why should I allow the world to form my standards of what makes me happy?? Why do I believe such bull crap at times?? Today, I chose NOT to allow FB or the world or some idiotic standards placed on me to define my happiness! We ALL have our struggles in life, our cross to carry if you may. Just make sure you’re not putting these struggles on yourself from some dumb standard you allowed yourself to believe! Don’t let your struggles carry you through this life but you carry them strong and with the knowledge you will be ok! You are ok and all is as it should be!
There’s a lesson in everything if only we care to open our eyes and just LOOK. Sorry this was so long and if you stayed with me til the end! Well! Thank you! Happy Thursday! I love you!
A 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.
In 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 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.
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.
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!”
I 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….
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.
Wednesday’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.
Anna (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!