Feeding the Lake

Father Anthony Messeh

Father Anthony Messeh

A few days ago a dear friend (one of my Goddaughters, actually) shared a link to a podcast that really blessed me, so I’d like to talk about it here. The topic of the talk was OCD—but not the definition most of us probably associate with those letters (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

The speaker, Father Anthony Messeh is a Coptic Orthodox priest and pastor of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Church in Arlington, Virginia. (Sidebar: Read more about the Coptic Orthodox Church here. I’ve always personally loved their icons. You can read more about them, and their music, here.) The new spin he puts on OCD is this:

Obsessive COMPARISON Disorder.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Living with OCD Part 1

My friend shared it with me because I had just been talking with her and a couple of other close friends about my struggles in this area of my life. For my whole life, actually. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t always comparing myself to someone else, someone who seemed prettier, thinner, more popular, more successful, or someone who had a happier family, a nicer house, cooler car, more money, etc. When I was a freshman at Ole Miss, I was president of the pledge class of a top sorority, and dating (and soon engaged to) the president of the senior class of the university, who would be going to medical school the next year on a full scholarship. From the outside looking in, I had it all. But I wasn’t content. I kept comparing myself to the other girls in my sorority, even the other girls my boyfriend had dated (some of them were, literally, beauty queens) and I felt less than. From a psychological point of view, I understand that some of that was fueled by the dysfunction in my family, including my mother’s verbal and emotional abuse of me my whole life, and my grandfather’s sexual abuse of me when I was a little girl.

As I’ve grown emotionally and spiritually (and chronologically, at age 67) I’ve made baby steps in healing the disorder, but I still struggle with it. The way it rears its ugly head for me at this stage of my life has to do with my writing career. Just a few years ago all I thought I needed to be “happy” was to get a book published. Now I’ve got four published (and two more shopped out to publishers now) but I don’t have a literary agent, so I didn’t get a book deal with a large publisher for any of them. I’m stuck in a small literary pond, watching lots of my writer friends who are more “successful” than me—some are New York Times best-selling authors, and many (who have agents and publicists) have won awards and reached a much larger audience. I recently spent about six months querying agents (again) for my next two books—a collection of linked short stories and a collection of personal essays. After many rejections, I’ve “given up” and have submitted both books to small presses (which don’t require an agent). I’ve decided to be content—and thankful—if either or both books get published by these presses, which are very reputable and will be good to work with. I’m making up my mind to enjoy this little pond I get to swim in, remembering that Madeleine L’Engle said, “We all feed the lake.” (more on that at the end of this post)

thankful2

 

Close friends tell me how much I have to be proud of, and I get that. I’m working hard and loving what I’m doing, but I’m also realizing how much more I want to experience contentment. A recent experience I had at confession helped. For my non Orthodox friends, the sacrament of confession in the Orthodox Church is (or can be) a very therapeutic thing. It’s not juridical. It’s doesn’t make us “right with God.” It helps makes us right with ourselves. If your priest is a good confessor, as mine is, he will help you see the ways you are hurting yourself or others, and how to move towards healing. The best advice I received recently had to do with being thankful. And I’m finding that the more I practice thanksgiving, the more content I am. I have an incredible number of things to be thankful for in my life, and as I focus on them instead of focusing on what others have that I want, I attain peace. It isn’t a once-and-for-all thing. It’s something I have to return to every day. Sometimes many times a day.

Contement is not chosen

 

One thing Father Anthony talks about in his podcasts is the way that social media amplifies this problem. The things that people post on Facebook or Instagram (my two go-to social media sites) are usually their best selves. Their accomplishments. Their beautiful families, vacations, homes, meals, children, etc. Bombarded with this, it’s hard not to compare myself with them. Father Anthony recommends taking a time out from social media, or even considering quitting it altogether, but I’m unwilling to do that at this point. I have too many good connections there with friends who live all over the country, and I don’t want to give those up. But I do want to respond differently to the multitude of posts that tend to make me feel less than. Instead of feeling jealous, I am working to be genuinely happy for other people’s successes. And I truly am happy for so many people I’ve come to care about and respect and even love.

 Father Anthony takes this issue a step further in his second podcast, Fighting FOMO Part 2. “FOMO” is “Fear Of Missing Out.” I don’t experience this as much as younger folks might, but sometimes I do, when I read about people I know who are doing fun things that I wish I was also doing. I have an 83-year-old friend who has shared with me much about the good changes we can expect with aging, including contentment with a quieter, much less “exciting” lifestyle.

 So, I’m going to continue to fight OCD with thankfulness, and jealousy with genuine joy for others’ good fortune. I’ll close with these words from one of my favorite authors:

 “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

MY Prince of Scribes

seitz-and-haupt_our-prince-of-scribesOn Sunday I finished reading a wonderful new book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy (University of Georgia Press, September 2018).  Edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, it’s a beautiful collection of reflections on the life and work of my favorite author, who is obviously a favorite with many others. When I heard about the collection, it had already gone to press. And although I didn’t know Pat as well as many of those who contributed essays to this book, I wished I could have joined them. So I will share my own reflections here, at the end of this post. But first I’ll share a few of my favorite quotes from contributing authors. I tagged about 25 “favorites,” but I’ll only share a little over half of them here. I hope these quotes will tease you into buying the book and reading these wonderful essays!

“They connected with Pat through the love of words or food, or through the shared sufferings of childhood or existential questioning”—Nicole Seitz, Editor

“Because of the abuses of his childhood, Pat found it impossible to foster sustained joy in his own success, but he could experience tremendous vicarious bliss in the success of others. Serving as the sage tribal elder in the mentoring of other writers brought Pat a happiness that even international literary fame could not.”—Jonathan Haupt, Editor

“Pat didn’t just survive; he thrived. . . . Boys like us longed for a way to save our fathers from themselves and our families from our fathers. And because that was impossible, boys like us devoted our adult lives to expressing our failures as heroes in the world through aspiring to be heroic in art…. Our wound was not just geography, as Pat once wrote, it was the unique spark of our hearts’ engines, and therefore kept us alive.”—Michael O’Keefe

“The wound we shared was permanent, not something that ever healed completely. We knew we would never be good enough. We didn’t know what bad thing was lurking just ahead of us.”—Cynthia Graubart

“If you are willing to read great books and work your ass off to write down what you are thinking and find your voice, it’s possible to emerge as a writer. To Pat there was no more sacred and worthwhile calling.”—Tim Conroy

“’My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life.’ I must have read that sentence aloud a dozen times. . . . And then I knew. I could just as truthfully assert that my mother’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life. . . . Pat could have allowed the cruelty to harden him, make him mean, make him repeat the sins of his father. But Pat made a conscious decision, I believe, to live a life that stood in total opposition to the violence. He found forgiveness through writing and grace in a life well lived . . . .”—Connie May Fowler

“One painful irony was his recognition that his books had liberated throngs of fellow sufferers—the depressed, the abused, the father haters—not to seek therapy or write books but to share their miseries with Conroy at book signings. This was unwelcome duty for a writer who wasn’t inclined to guide others through their elf-realization. Writing is not group therapy. But such was the price Conroy paid for exposing so much of himself and his family, book after book, as he sought to explain his tortured childhood to himself.”—Kathleen Parker

“He portrayed the South in full—all its contrasting mystery and ugliness, beauty and brine, laid bare—and did so in a way that made it feel accessible to outsiders and refreshing to those of us who live here.”—John Connor Cleveland

“I carried on about how the setting and themes of The Prince of Tides spoke directly to me. Pat smiled and listened as if he hadn’t heard the same thing a million times form other readers. And I found myself confessing hidden pieces of my life. The abuse in the novel was something I understood. ‘Most writers had shitty childhoods,’ he said.”—Michael Morris

“So many writers I know today don’t even address the question. They’re not even God-curious. I still think that’s the difference between a great writer and a merely good writer. Great writers—whether they’re believers or not—are God-haunted. Pat Conroy was God-haunted. Maybe you didn’t know.”—Margaret Evans

“The trauma of his childhood and adolescence could easily have sent him into the abyss. I know that writing about issues evoking his past trauma could be cathartic for Pat, but there was also peril in descending into that past. Blending memory and art was a dangerous dance too…. He took what might have destroyed him and made it beautiful and true…. His art will endure.”—Ron Rash

“’My wound is geography.’ The wound he referred to was tied to his difficult youth and his abusive father. But his themes about surviving a dysfunctional childhood gave me the confidence to write bout subjects I had shied away from in my own work, like my mother’s rape and other personal difficulties.”—Marjory Wentworth

“What I learned from his life and friendship was a kind of theology: Stories and Life are both marvelous and dreadful. I can’t, as a reader or a writer or a human being, shy away from the broken world…. It’s all there together—the noble, the cowardly, the awful, the shining. As it must be I both our writing and our lives.”—Patti Callahan Henry

“Reading Pat, and later knowing him, has been a life-class not on y in how to write but how to live…. To love the South while refusing to accept its failing and shortcomings. To pay forward what cannot possibly be paid back. To write about your family, to love your family. To look directly at all the world’s horror, to face it honestly, but never to turn mean. That’s what knowing Pat and reading Pat taught me, and is teaching me still.”—Mark Powell

And now, if I had been invited to contribute to the collection, what would I have written?

 

Permission to Write

By Susan Cushman

That’s what Pat Conroy gave me. And I’d also like to say here—since this essay isn’t published in the book about Pat—that his wife Cassandra King was also a big part of my inspiration to write. When I met Cassandra at the Southern Festival of Books in 2006—the last year it was held in Memphis—she was talking about her book The Sunday Wife. We talked in person after her panel, and she wrote in the front cover of my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is.” I could write more about Cassandra and her books and what her friendship means to me, but since this reflection is supposed to be about Pat, I’ll get back to him.

I don’t remember what year it was when I first read The Prince of Tides. It was published in 1986 and the movie came out in 1991. I think I actually saw the movie first, and loved it. But when I read the book, I was blown away by two things: Pat’s incredibly beautiful literary prose, and the power of using real life experiences—in his case the abuse from his father—to fuel a novel. To make art from pain.

I had tried to write about my own personal wounds—sexual abuse first from my grandfather when I was four or five, verbal and emotional abuse from my mother for all of my life, and abuse from two different Christian leaders in the 1970s—and so I wrote a memoir. Two, actually. But I finally realized that I wasn’t willing to go public with some of the names and situations involved, so I followed Pat’s example and wrote a novel. It took several years to finish Cherry Bomb, a couple more years dealing with a New York literary agent (with whom I eventually parted ways), finding a publishing home, more editing and finally publishing the novel in August of 2017. It was so satisfying and healing, and I will always be grateful to Pat for inspiring me to do this.

When Beach Music came out in 1995, I devoured it and realized what everyone else already knew: Pat wasn’t a one-hit wonder. So I went back and read The Water is Wide (1972) The Great Santini (1976), and The Lord of Discipline (1980). For some reason I never read The Boo (1970). But all of these books were also full of art borne from suffering, and they are powerfully beautiful. In 2009, I read Pat’s final novel, South of Broad, and it came alive for me on two visits to Charleston, the “Holy city” featured in the book. I think it may be my second favorite of Pat’s books, next to The Prince of Tides. Of course I also loved My Reading Life (2010) and I wept as I read his memoir The Death of Santini (2013), which revealed even more of his tremendously loving and forgiving heart, as he did everything he could to heal his relationship with his father.

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

When I finally got to meet him, in 2010, Pat was speaking at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. He was so warm and genuine in person, and so humble and generous with his time. He even purchased books from some of the (lesser known) authors who were presenting during the weekend and stood in line to have them inscribe the books for him. He donned an apron and helped serve plates for the author dinner one evening. And when he spoke, his love for not only writing but also writers—at whatever stage we were in with our careers—was evident, and blessed me greatly.

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

In May of 2017 I visited Pat’s home in Beaufort, South Carolina, for the first time, just over a year after his death in March of 2016. I was giving a reading at Nevermore Books in Beaufort for an anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Cassandra had contributed an essay to the book and joined me at the bookstore along with two other contributors, and then invited all of us to her house for dinner afterwards. I remember feeling a little awkward as she encouraged me to sit down in the chair at Pat’s writing desk, saying, “Maybe you’ll soak up some of his inspiration.” But I did sit there, as I had sat at his other desk earlier that day—the one that’s part of an exhibit at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I swiveled around to take in the view of Battery Creek, which runs behind their home, and imagined how it might have inspired the beautiful descriptions of his beloved Lowcountry. I had just read A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016) and relished his words that were salvaged from various places that had published them previously. I was putting together another anthology when Pat died—Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018)—and was sad not to have an essay by him in the collection. Cassandra contributed a wonderful essay—“The Ghost of Josiah King,” and I was thrilled to have essays by more writers with ties to Pat’s beloved Lowcountry, like Nicole Seitz and Patti Callahan Henry. I opened the Introduction with these words from A Lowcountry Heart:

“In his book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (published posthumously), the author Pat Conroy says: ‘My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’”’”

Only Pat Conroy could write about the culture of suffering in the South with humor and get away with it. (Okay, so Rick Bragg also did this, and more recently, Harrison Scott Key.) I don’t do humor well, although I did use it some in my memoir about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Because you have to have humor to survive the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

I believe that Pat has received all the messages of love penned by the authors who contributed to Our Prince of Scribes, and that he’s reading my words, even now. So I’ll send a shout out to him as I close this tribute: THANK YOU for giving me permission to write. If I could hear his response, I know he would be saying, “Great love.”

RUSH

Lisa Patton w me at NovelI recently had the pleasure of meeting author Lisa Patton in person, when she spoke at Novel books in Memphis, where she was launching her new novel RUSH. Lisa is a Memphis native, living in Nashville now. And although she went to school at the University of Alabama, she chose to set her story of sorority rush at the University of Mississippi. Next Sunday, September 30, is BID DAY at Ole Miss, so this is a good week to be thinking about what those girls are going through in the final days of rush.
RUSH is set in 2016, so a lot has changed since I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss back in 1969. Reading about all the drama made me wonder how much was exaggerated, and I couldn’t wait to talk with Lisa Patton about this. I’m excited that she agreed to answer a few questions.

Susan:  Hi, Lisa. I loved meeting you at Novel in Memphis at the launch for your new book RUSH. It’s always wonderful to celebrate with fellow Memphis authors! I know you said at the event that you went to Alabama, and yet you chose to set RUSH at Ole Miss. I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss (back in 1969!) and I’m sure much has changed in these almost 50 years, but I’m wondering how much you exaggerated the drama surrounding rush, and even the social milieu. Are there really dorm decorators? And do the moms/alums really get so involved? The way you portrayed Lilith Whitmore, the House Corp President of Alpha Delta Beta (a fictional sorority) reminded me a bit of how Kathryn Stockett portrayed the junior league ladies like Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt in her novel THE HELP.  (I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, so I lived through much of what Stockett wrote about.)

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I'm the second from the right on the second row from the bottom...with the bright yellow hair!

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I’m the second from the right on the second row from the bottom…with the bright yellow hair!

Lisa: I loved meeting you, too, Susan! I’ve heard so many lovely things about you over the years and all I can say is: “It’s about time!” I didn’t exaggerate the rush drama at all. I had a bank of young collegians from not only Ole Miss but other SEC schools that kept me informed on all the current goings on. The mamas turn into Nervous Nellies and yes, the alums are very involved. Getting the story right was paramount; after all rush is one of the most sacred rituals in the South. And yes, there are dorm decorators! I interviewed the most prominent one in Mississippi for over two hours one night. She was incredibly generous with her information.

thI decided to set the novel at Ole Miss over Alabama for three reasons: First, Alabama wins too much ;-0! Some people love to hate The Tide and I couldn’t take a chance on a person not reading my story because of it. Second, as a Memphian I like to set my stories in my beloved hometown, and thirdly, Eli Manning had just been nominated for the Walter Payton Humanitarian of the Year Award and that fit perfectly within the context of my story. Lilith Whitmore, my antagonist, is satirical on purpose to make the point that although we try to cover it up, racism still runs deep. I wanted to use humor, exaggeration, and even ridicule to show that the southern racial divide still influences our decisions, whether we think so or not. Since THE HELP was set in the 60s, Kathryn Stockett didn’t need to use satire to portray Hilly Hollbrook or Elizabeth Leefolt. RUSH is set in modern day. Folks today are not as overt when it comes to racism. We’ve come a long way since the 60s but there’s still a long road to hoe.

Susan: I keep thinking of comparisons to THE HELP, especially with your chapters from the point of view of Miss Pearl—the beloved African American housekeeper at the Alpha Delta Beta house. Did you live in a sorority house at Alabama, and were you aware of similar struggles that the staff there had, regarding the lack of medical insurance and other benefits, for example? What is the situation like for the staff in these sorority houses today? Have the women living in those sorority houses ever actually done something to try to change that, the way Cali Watkins and the other Alpha Delts do in the book?

Lisa: I lived in my sorority house my senior year – third floor, right next to the TV room. We had daybeds in our rooms and slept on one big “sleeping porch.” I’ve often thought about those days and the deep great sleep I once enjoyed. The room was ice cold and we hunkered down under warm comforters. The noise from girls slipping in and out was blocked with the white noise from large fans. What I wouldn’t give to be able to sleep that hard today!

I was not aware of the struggles facing the staff at sorority houses. As much as I hate to admit it, I was a self-absorbed college student. I never once thought about it back then. And the ladies cooked and cleaned for us every day. When I learned about it as an alum (I’m betting most alums have not thought of it either) I was sorry I’d never considered their needs and hoped I could bring awareness by including it in my story. Most sorority and fraternity houses don’t offer staff benefits although some of the houses now outsource their staff for that reason.

Recently, I learned about a young woman at the Tri Delt house at Ole Miss who started a Go Fund Me page for their cook, Mr. Kenny. He had double hip replacement surgery and had to be off work for three months. Last I checked the page has raised $20K toward the $75K goal. That’s a perfect example of RUSH in action. I’m so proud of the young Tri Delt girls for helping Mr. Kenny.

Susan:  I’m also proud of my Tri Delt sisters at Ole Miss for helping Mr. Kenny! Like you, I wasn’t aware of our house staff’s needs at all when I was in school, so it’s encouraging to see this generation stepping up.

In an early scene in RUSH, you show the daughter of Lilith Whitmore getting drunk during the tailgating parties in the grove before the first football game of the season. How much do you think drinking is a problem on campuses like Ole Miss and Alabama today, and what do you think is being done, or needs to be done, to change the social milieu in order to make college a safer place for teenagers and young twenty-somethings?

Lisa: I think drinking is a problem on most college campuses. The drinking age was 18 when we were young so I think some parents are fine with their children drinking after they reach a certain age and tend to look the other way. I’ve heard of several providing a “safe place” like home for their kids and their kid’s friends to drink.  Honestly I don’t know what the answer is. Until fake IDs are controlled and parents stop looking the other way I doubt things will change. I’m not sure that there is an answer.

Susan:  Your earlier books—Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Yankee Doodle Dixie, and Southern as a Second Language—are all humorous. And your stylish humor is evident in RUSH, but you deal with serious topics. Did you set out to write a more serious book this time?

Lisa: Yes, I knew when I tackled the issues of race, equality, and inclusion the book would have to be more serious, but I love humor and I wanted to make sure my book had plenty of it. That’s why I used satire and poked fun at dorm room décor and mother daughter relationships. The most fun I had was writing about Wilda’s 81-year-old mother. I would sit in my room and laugh till tears rolled down my cheeks at the absurdity of her vanity and snobbery. As you well know, writing can be quite lonely. Without adding humor into my stories I would lose my ever-loving mind!

Thanks for taking time during your busy book tour to chat with us, Lisa. I really enjoyed RUSH and am only sorry that I didn’t think of writing it first! (Okay, that’s how I felt about THE HELP, too. And Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS. That’s my excuse for not writing a New York Times best-seller.)

Check out Lisa’s EVENT PAGE to see where you can catch up with her for a reading/signing. I’m looking forward to seeing her again at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where she’s speaking at 12 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.  (And IF YOU GO… be sure and come to my panel at 3 p.m. on Friday, October 12, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, with Lee Smith, River Jordan, and Niles Reddick!)

The Burden of Memory and History

I’m off on a short road this trip morning to Jackson, Tennessee, to speak on a panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING with fellow Tennessee authors Niles Reddick and River Jordan, so I’m short on time to write a blog post. Instead, I’m going to share something from a post I did ten years ago:

“Southern Writers on the River: The Burden of Memory and History”

Herman King, Patti Trippeer and me by the gate to the Ornamental Metal Museum on the Mississippi River in Memphis, September 2008. Photo by Doug McLain

Herman King, Patti Trippeer and me by the gate to the Ornamental Metal Museum on the Mississippi River in Memphis, September 2008. Photo by Doug McLain

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to click on the link and travel with me down memory lane, where I reflect on a magical day spent down by the Mississippi River with members of the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group, which met monthly for several years to critique one another’s works-in-progress and to share our journeys in the written word. Here’s a teaser:

So yesterday when some of the folks in my writers critique group gave me their gentle but wise feedback on the pages I had just penned—the pages about some difficult and dark things that happened during those same years that Morris chronicled in The Last of the Southern Girls—I listened to their suggestions because I respect their journeys and their own personal endeavors to capture their memories, and our collective Southern history, in the short stories and novels they are drafting.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend. Come back next week for some NEW POSTS, including an interview with another Tennessee author . . . .

 

It’s About TIME (with Doc Oz)

Parade Doc OzI’ve recently done a couple of posts about eating and eating disorders. If you haven’t read them, here they are:

Intuitive Eating

Disordered Eating Revisited

And a little more background, from 2015:
Eat, Drink, Repeat: Day 1 of a 3-Day Binge

I’m back again today with something I read this week from the September 9 issue of Parade Magazine:

 

“Secrets From Dr Oz: Why He’s Fasting and Using the Clock to Slow Dementia and Fight Disease.”

For those who are already embracing the “intuitive eating” approach, this might not appeal to you, since that program de-emphasizes a focus on weight loss. But I like that Dr. Oz is talking about weight loss, dementia, and other diseases in this piece.  And it’s all about TIME:

“New studies suggest that WHEN you eat matters for your health, longevity and even weight loss,” Oz says. . . . Before drive-thrus, microwaves and refrigerators, the human body evolved to go for long stretches without food. During these breaks, vital things happen. Insulin levels drop which makes stored body fat more accessible for us. Human growth hormone goes up, to help burn fat and build muscle. Damaged cell material is shed faster. All this may help us to:

Lose weight (or stick to a healthy weight.)

Slow Alzheimer’s.
Grow a healthier gut.

For more details about each of these, read the article here. (There’s also a short video with Dr. Oz included in the link.)

I was encouraged by his discussion of “intermittent fasting” because this is something that I had already embraced, with some degree of success with weight loss as a result. He promotes sleeping 8 hours (which I often do) and then fasting for 4 hours–preferably two of those before going to bed, which I also have embraced to help with my GERD (gastro-enterstinal reflux disease). I actually do better with a longer fasting time, like from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., but most night we don’t have supper until around 7. When I’m being more focused on dieting, I often have my “supper” in the middle of the afternoon and then feed my husband at 7, after he exercises after work. When I do that, I find I lose weight and feel better. But it’s hard not to snack around 8-10 p.m., which can undo the benefits of eating earlier! If I snack after 9 p.m. I often don’t eat the next day until mid morning or even noon.

Of course this doesn’t “cure” my eating disorder (I’m struggling to give up Hershey’s kisses because I can’t seem to moderate them) but I’m healthier today, weighing almost 20 pounds less than I did three years ago, and I really want to keep going to get to an even healthier weight.

Anyway, I thought I’d share the link to this article for those who are interested. To continue the discussion about various approaches to dieting (or not dieting) please leave a comment here or on the Facebook thread. Thanks, always, for reading!

 

Warming Up to Adele (and short story collections)

a297b454e38ab19556dd1bbfaf6eeeceIf you read my blog regularly, you know that I have published four books, with four different publishers—two university presses and two small indie presses. And I’ve been published in three genres: memoir, novel, and essay anthology (as editor and contributor). You might not know that I haven’t always like short stories. But that has changed recently. Maybe because of my friends who have published some really good collections, like those by John Floyd, Niles Reddick, Lee Martin, Jennifer Horne, and Suzanne Hudson. (I blogged about John, Jennifer and Suzanne’s collections here.) Oh and M. O. “Neal” Walsh’s first book was a linked short story collection, The Prospect of Magic.

You also know that I had a negative experience working with a New York literary agent on my novel CHERRY BOMB, and eventually parted ways with her. And yet I find myself hoping for a different experience “next time,” and so I’ve just spent several months querying agents for my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Here’s an update on the journey.

Of the forty agents I’ve queried since May (remember that I queried over 100 for CHERRY BOMB?) here are my responses so far:

17 rejections, but several were personal and very nice. My favorite one said this:

I think you’re a great writer and this is a great concept. I had a hard time warming up to Adele.  I think her voice is getting lost in the stories she’s reflecting on here – I think this collection would be more powerful if we had more of a sense of who your narrator is.

Friends of the Library cover“Adele” is the fictional author (based on me) who visits ten Friends of the Library groups in small towns in Mississippi, speaking about her novel and her memoir. In each town, she gets involved in the very complex lives of some of the people there (all fictional people and situations) who are dealing with things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, domestic abuse, eating disorders, adoption, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and racial issues. She doesn’t have the same level of involvement in all of the stories, and maybe that’s what this agent is referring to. Maybe she needs to be more involved, so that her interactions change her and affect her life more.

What’s interesting about this agent’s comments is that I was just visiting with a couple of author friends this weekend about this collection, and one of them mentioned the idea of making the author/narrator into a protagonist for a novel, by connecting the stories. I’m not sure how to do that, since the characters in each story don’t really have anything to do with the characters in the other stories. I really like the book the way it’s structured, but I do plan to go back through it and see if I can figure out why this agent had a hard time “warming up to Adele.” I want my readers to love her, but especially to love the characters she meets in each of the small towns in Mississippi. And to embrace those towns and their history, their architecture, their music and art and culture.

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short-stories-writers-digestMeanwhile… (you know something’s coming when you see my ellipses, right?) I decided to go ahead and query three university presses for the collection. They each have the full manuscript, but I haven’t heard back from any of them yet. Only two more of the 40 agents I queried asked to read the manuscript, and I haven’t heard back from them yet (it’s been two months) so my gut feeling is that if one of the university presses is interested in the book, I will go with them. I really like working with academic presses, but I was hoping for a larger reach. Maybe that will happen if I ever get that next novel written. I’m actually considering expanding one of these short stories into a novel. I won’t tell you which one yet.

So that’s a sneak peek into this chapter of a writer’s life.

SWW at Pat Conroy event

Jonathan Haupt (back left) Director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center hosted this wonderful event with authors Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry (back row) and me and Cassandra King Conroy (front row) in Bluffton, South Carolina.

 

As much fun as I’m having touring for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, it’s important to always be looking forward, working on the next project, or there won’t be a next book! This weekend I was in South Carolina for my 10th panel presentation for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, this time with Cassandra King, Patti Callahan Henry, Nicole Seitz, and Harrison Scott Key. The event was in the Visiting Author Series sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort. The turnout was great and I really enjoyed being with these amazing writers who generously contributed essays to the book and then traveled to Bluffton for the event. I’ve now moderated panels with 21 of the 26 contributing authors, and have four more events scheduled for this book (through January of 2019). So… come next February, I hope to have another book in the queue. And maybe I’ll have time to finally get that second novel under way.
Thanks always, for reading!

Intuitive Eating

On Tuesday I did a post about “Disordered Eating.” This is a follow up, so if you’re bored with this topic, check back in next week. If not, please keep reading.

1515intuitiveeatingThere were interesting discussion threads on Facebook and Instagram in response to my post on Tuesday—thank you! This is obviously a topic of importance to many people. One person left a comment on Tuesday’s post asking for a recommendation for an in-patient therapy program for her morbid obesity, and I’ve put her in touch with two people in her city who might have suggestions. And two different people who live in two different cities both mentioned the book INTUITIVE EATING by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.  These two women are both seeing nutrition experts for help with their eating disorders. I got the book on Wednesday and read most of it in two days. (And yes, I finished off another bag of Hershey’s kisses in the process.)

It’s a complex book and program, so I’m not going to try and do a full review here. I will respond to the book’s 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating and a few other excerpts from the book.

First let me introduce the authors. Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietician with a nutrition counseling practice in Newport Beach, California, specializing in eating disorders. Elyse Resche, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A., C.E.D.R.D, has been in private practice in Beverly Hills, California, as a nutrition therapist for thirty years, specializing in eating disorders, Intuitive Eating, and preventative nutrition. . (C.E.D.R.D. stands for Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietician—yes, there actually is such a thing!)

twiggyAnd before I go any further, I’d like to share a link to a blog post I found while clicking around this morning: “Why Intuitive Eating is Making Me Sad.” I think this short post is important because the author is simply making the observation that this program or principle, which claims to be “revolutionary,” is really a return to the way people used to eat before the diet craze took over our world. I think her words are a good addition to this conversation. For me personally, I barely remember that pre-diet-craze time…. only a few years in the 1950s when I happily ate my grandmother’s homemade rolls, fried corn, and homemade ice cream without guilt. My grandfather who molested me when I was 4-5 died around 1956, and it would take several decades for me to make the connection between those acts and my disordered drinking and eating. By the time I was a teenager, my mother had already started in on me with the “fat talk” (this is explained in the book) and shaming, and my eating disorder was in full force in the 1960s. Just when Twiggy came on the scene and I wanted to be her. Thankfully my eating disorder never became as life-threatening as anorexia, although there were times when I wished I could be anorexic so I could be skinny. Yes.

So back to the book. I read 10 of the 17 chapters, and skimmed the other 7. It’s not that those chapters aren’t important. It’s just that they address things that I had already learned in my 67 years and didn’t need to revisit. FULL DISCLOSURE: I must say up front that I don’t embrace a major tenet of this approach, which is that the patient/client must put weight-loss on the back burner as they work through this program. I have lost almost 20 pounds in the past two years, but I’d like to lose at least 10 more, so I’m not willing to put this “on the back burner.” This isn’t a one-size-fits-all issue, and in Chapter 2: “What Kind of Eater Are You?” I didn’t fit any of the descriptions. The one that came closest for me was the “Emotional Unconscious Eater,” although I’m very conscious of my eating. This type:

“uses food to cope with emotions, especially uncomfortable emotions such as stress, anger, and loneliness. While Emotional Eaters view their eating as the problem, it’s often a symptom of a deeper issue. Eating behaviors of the Emotional Eater can range from grabbing a candy bar in stressful times to chronic compulsive binges of vast quantities of food”

So, Chapter 11 was possibly the most helpful chapter for me:

PRINCIPLE 7: Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food

This chapter is summarized in the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating I mentioned earlier:

Find ways to comfort , nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.

The chapter goes into detail about various emotional triggers and the ways we use food for comfort, distraction, sedation, and even punishment, although that last one hasn’t been my experience. While there wasn’t anything “new” for me in this chapter—I kept waiting for the magic answer—the easy ways to find comfort without using food—it was reaffirming:

Becoming an Intuitive Eater means learning to be gentle with yourself about how you use food to cope, and letting go of the guilt. As odd as this may sound, eating may have been the only coping mechanism you had to get through difficult times in your life.

I identified with that statement, with one really big caveat: for years I used alcohol as my coping drug of choice. But one year ago tomorrow (yes!) I quit drinking, so food has moved back into the forefront of my struggles, with renewed vigor.

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The main things about Intuitive Eating that make sense to me are things that I already embrace. I am a mindful eater and am aware of when I am full and can often stop eating at that point. Like yesterday when I had lunch with a friend and only ate half of the two sushi rolls I ordered. I was full and comfortable with that amount. It wasn’t hard to stop eating because the food, which was delicious, made me happy. I was also enjoying the company of a friend, so I wasn’t lonely. The day before, I had buttered two halves of a blueberry bagel and toasted them for breakfast. My husband walked in and said, “something smells good,” and I realized that I was full after eating one half, so I gave him the other half. (I had also eaten a peach.) All this to say that I already get the mindful eating thing, and I actually practice it fairly regularly, where meals are concerned. And thankfully the binge eating has almost gone away during this year that I’ve not been drinking, so that’s interesting. I haven’t had a bulimic episode in many months. It’s the trigger foods (like Hershey’s kisses) that I’m struggling with controlling, and I don’t really see how this book addresses those issues directly. Maybe they will resolve themselves as I get healthier in general. If I ever reach the point, as page 163 in the book describes, “When Food is No Longer Important” (when a person reaches the point where they’re no longer using food to cope with their emotions):

You no longer have the “benefits” of using food…. One client noted that on tough days she knew she could always go home to her chocolate. Now, instead, she’s “stuck” with experiencing her feelings. You might even need to go through a grieving period for the loss of food as comforter and companion.

This is probably the most important paragraph in the whole book for me. This describes exactly what I’ve been able to do with alcohol for the past year. Almost every day (at least for the few first months) there’s a time when something triggers me and I want vodka so badly I can hear the martini shaker going in my mind and I can taste the magic on my lips. But since I made the decision not to drink, this is no longer an option for me. I have GRIEVED the loss of this comfort, but like grief over the death of a loved one, it’s getting easier with time. I’m thinking that I will need to make similar choices about certain foods (like Hershey’s kisses) that I can’t seem to limit. I already do this in some ways—like not buying kettle-cooked potato chips very often because I will eat the whole bag at once. But I do choose to buy those chips at times, maybe about once or twice a month. Maybe intuitive eating for me will mean making these hard choices more frequently, and allowing myself to “experience my feelings in a deeper, stronger way” as the book says. I used alcohol to numb those feelings for so many years, and now I’m trying to learn to quit using food in the same way.

The chapter of the book about respecting your body also hit a strong note with me. I already do the “nice things” the book suggests, like getting massages and regular visits to the nail and hair salon. And I’m embracing moderate exercise, which is discussed in another chapter in the book. I was an exercise “addict” in the 1980s when I ran an aerobic dance business. On days that I didn’t work out, I often didn’t eat. When we traveled I looked for an aerobic class to attend, and if I couldn’t find one I would panic. When I quit teaching aerobics at age 40, I began to gain weight again, and the struggle has intensified over the years. But I’ve finally made peace with exercising moderately on our elliptical machine in my office, and at the swimming pool in the summer. I’m not “driven” to exercise, nor do I feel guilty if I skip but it makes me feel so much better to MOVE my body, that I’m drawn to it fairly naturally.

I’ve also been learning to really enjoy food at times by eating mindfully, eating foods I really love in a nice setting. So I think I’ve been on the road to “intuitive eating” for a while, but I’ve got a ways to go with the trigger foods. And I would love to some day be free of my obsession with food and body image. You would think that being 67 years old would help, and in some ways it does. Also, surviving a life-threatening wreck five years ago (when I broke my neck, leg and ankle) has helped, because I have become more THANKFUL for my body and the life it provides for me, when I could have died or become paralyzed. The pain I’m left with does trigger unhealthy eating (as it once triggered the alcohol) but I’m learning to use other means to help deal with the pain.

Chapter 14 was helpful: PRINCIPLE 10: Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition. Again, it didn’t have a lot of information that was NEW to me, but it confirmed a number of things that I’ve been learning over the years that make me think I’m moving in a good direction. I think that for me, right now, today, focusing on how eating certain foods and certain amounts of food makes me FEEL is key.
The bottom line is, I’m tired. I’m tired of food and weight and appearance taking up so much of my life. One of the clients described in the book talked about her obsession with clothes and body image while preparing for upcoming social events. I do that when preparing for speaking engagements on my book tours. Like this weekend, when I’m flying to South Carolina to speak on a panel sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literary Center. It’s an honor and I’m excited about it, but of course I’m also keenly aware that the other women on the panel are thinner than me (two are quite a bit younger as well) and I worry about what to wear and I compare myself to these other women. I’m sure that the people in the audience are just there to hear about our books and our lives as southern writers, but I can’t help but worry about how I will look.

I’m hopeful that I’m moving towards making peace with these issues, and while I don’t think this book is a magic bullet, I do appreciate some of the wisdom its authors have shared. I’ll close with an excerpt from Chapter 16: The Ultimate Path Towards Healing From Eating Disorders:

The vision of a future, free of obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors is very powerful. This hope can facilitate the patience it will take to get through the period of time that is needed for healing.

Thanks, always, for reading and please join the discussion here or on Facebook or Instagram.

Disordered Eating Revisited

eating-disorderAccording to an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry (2009):

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

And yet, this mental illness was left out of the Mental Health First Aid training course I took last weekend, sponsored by the Church Health Center here in Memphis. They used to include Eating Disorders, but the course took longer than one day, so they cut it out. The mental disorders they included in the eight-hour course were: anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia. I can see why they chose these disorders for the course, as each of them have specific things a person can do to help—mental health first aid—when they see someone struggling with an anxiety or panic attack, severe depression, substance abuse, and behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others. For someone with an eating disorder, the symptoms don’t always present in such obvious forms. And “mental first aid” for persons with this disorder is a bit more complicated.

Thankfully there’s a whole chapter devoted to eating disorders in the Mental Health First Aid USA manual they gave us at the training, and I came home and read it right away. If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know that my interest in this disorder is very personal, as I’ve suffered from eating disorders for most of my life. I don’t believe that my level of disordered eating has placed me in a life-threatening situation—the way that anorexia can, on the one extreme, or morbid obesity, on the other. And for many people like me, it would be difficult for someone to know how to reach out to us with any kind of mental first aid. By the time a person’s eating disorder has become life-threatening, it seems that treatment has a diminishing chance of success.

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Aerobic dance instructors at Phidippides Sports in Jackson, Mississippi, 1984. That’s me in the black tights, middle row on the left. Even at 116 pounds, I often wore black to make my thighs look skinnier. I was 33 years old.

 

With so much emphasis on body image in our culture, it’s not surprising that many people (especially women and girls) suffer from body image distortion and resultant eating disorders in an effort to live up to society’s standards for a thin body. This started for me when I was a young teenager and gained 35 pounds in one year as a result of hormone therapy I received following surgery when I was 16. I went from a skinny 95-pound bundle of energy (who could eat as much as I wanted and not gain weight) to a 130-pound late-blooming adolescent. (I also grew three inches taller.)  By the time I got married at age 19, I weighed 140 and was depressed. My bulimic habits, which began as a teenager, continued into  adulthood. I would eat in secret and lie about what I was eating. I tried various forms of exercise, and finally in 1982, I found something that “worked.” I began teaching aerobic dancing at my parents’ athletic store in Jackson, Mississippi (Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports) and dropped to 116 pounds pretty quickly. But my disordered eating and body image distortion only increased. Standing in front of a wall of mirrors in spandex, teaching my students, I still thought I was fat. On any day that I couldn’t work out, I wouldn’t eat. Bulimia was still part of my life, but less so with al the exercise.

kissesWhen I read the chapter on eating disorders in the Mental Health First Aid manual, I recognized immediately which category I fit into. I don’t have anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa (since bulimia isn’t a regular activity for me) so the third category, “Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified or EDNOS” includes Binge-Eating Disorder, which is the main thing I’ve struggled with most of my life. Whenever I post images—like this one of the Hersheys Kisses I ate on a recent binge—on social media, I get lots of responses from others with similar issues, so I know it’s fairly common. According to an article in Biological Psychiatry (2007):

A national survey of adults found that 1.2 percent had binge-eating disorder in the previous year and 2.8 percent had had it some time in their life. Approximately 28 percent of people with binge-eating disorder received treatment for mental health problems.

I think that last statistic is important, because in order to get healed from an eating disorder, I think a person needs help with the underlying cause. Again, according to the Mental Health First Aid manual (and an article in Lancet in 2003):

A range of biological, psychological, and social factors may be contributing factors. The following factors increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder:

Life Experiences
Conflict in the home, parents who have little contact with or high expectation of their children.

Sexual abuse.

Family history of dieting.

Critical comment from others about eating, weight or body shape.

Pressure to be slim because of occupation (model, jockey) or recreation (ballet, gymnastics)

Mom circle 1963. She was 35 years old and thought she was fat.

Mom circle 1963. She was 35 years old and thought she was fat.

I checked “yes” for ALL of these. I could never live up to my mother’s expectations, and experienced relentless verbal abuse from her, especially her criticism of my weight, hair, and clothes. She was always dieting and talking about weight (hers and others) although she remained slim all of her life. As a cheerleader in my teenage years and an aerobic dance instructor in my 30s, I was often in situations where I felt pressure to be slim. The year I spent as a coed on the Ole Miss campus added to that pressure. I kept comparing myself to the beauty queens my boyfriend had dated before me.

The manual also says that mental disorders in family members can contribute to someone having an eating disorder. My mother definitely exhibited substance use disorder (drinking) and I have reason to believe that she was sexually abused by her father, my grandfather, who molested me when I was a little girl.

So, what’s the Mental Health First Aid Action Plan for helping someone with an eating disorder? It’s tricky, to say the least. It requires that a person wanting to reach out and help someone must learn as much as possible about the disorder first, by reading books and articles, or talking with a health professional. Then they should choose a time to approach the person they are concerned about and do so in a way that is non-judgmental and compassionate. Some tips in the manual:

Initially, focus on conveying empathy and not on changing the person or their perspective… try not to focus solely on weight or food. Rather, focus on the eating behaviors that concern you. Allow the person to discuss other concerns that are not about food, weight, or exercise. Make sure you give the person plenty of time to discuss their feelings, and reassure them it’s safe to be open and honest about how they feel.

I think this is great advice. Some things NOT to do (that I’ve experienced personally and found not to be helpful) are: (these come from me, not from the manual)

Suggest a specific diet or nutrition plan that has “worked for them.” (Unless the person is ASKING for one.)

Use words or a tone of voice that is patronizing, even in an attempt to flatter the person with phrases like, “Oh but you are beautiful just the way you are.” This is fine if you are close friends with the person, but not helpful in mental health first aid.

Like the other mental health first aid approaches, this one has guidelines for assessing the person for crisis including:

 The person has serious health consequences (disorientation, vomiting, fainting, chest pain or trouble breathing, blood in their bowels, urine, or vomit, or cold or clammy skin and a body temperature of less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

eating_disorders_imageIf you come across someone with these symptoms, mental health first aid is important, and you should apply similar techniques as for other crises (the

ALGEE action plan I explained in my previous post.) But there are suggestions specifically for helping someone with an eating disorder who seems to be in a crisis. There’s too much information for me to share here, but I hope you will get the manual and read about this yourself.

I know this was a long post, and as always, thanks for reading. And of course I love to hear from you, either here or on the Facebook thread.

Here’s a post from a few years ago that has an excerpt from my essay “Eat, Drink, Repeat”:

“Eat Drink Repeat: Day 1 of a 3-Day Binge” (2015)

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