Alabama Writers Conclave Conference

I’m off this morning to Orange Beach, Alabama, where I’m speaking at the 2018 Conference of the Alabama Writers Conclave (AWC). Check out the list of speakers here. So many good things about this event:

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I get to hang out with my Alabama writer friends Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed again (loved being with them in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa last week) and I finally get to meet Katherine Clark in person.

My husband is joining me for a long weekend on the coast. The AWC pays travel, two nights in a hotel, and an honorarium, so it’s fun that I’m taking him as the spouse for this trip, after so many trips where he takes me as the spouse for his medical meetings. Tonight we’ll have our final “anniversary week” celebration, with dinner at Fishers at the marina at Orange Beach. And hopefully he’ll have some fun at the beach while I’m working on Saturday!

On Sunday we drive from Orange Beach over to Fairhope, where I’m joining Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella for a panel on Southern Writers on Writing at Page & Palette Books. I love this bookstore and this town, where I’ve been many times over the years for literary events and have made some good friends. 10 of us will be having supper at Tamara Downtown after the reading at Page & Palette Sunday afternoon.

Here’s my schedule at the AWC Conference:

Saturday, 8:30 a.m. I’m teaching a workshop: “Working With Editors Memoirs, Novels, and Anthologies.”

Sunday, 9:45 a.m. I’m on a panel with contributors Jennifer Horne, Wendy Reed, and Katherine Clark for Southern Writers on Writing. This will be my sixth event for this book, and I’m loving connecting with all the authors throughout the south on this book tour.

We’re hitting the road in about two hours, so I’d better pack! Watch Facebook for photos. Have a great weekend, everyone!

2018 Releases from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING Authors

Eight of the twenty-six authors who contributed essays (and the Foreword) to Southern Writers on Writing have new books out in 2018. I am honored to have all of these amazing writers in this collection, and I especially want to encourage my readers to check out these new releases for 2018. I love the diversity of this group of new releases, which includes two short story collections; five nonfiction books (two inspirational books, one memoir, one anthology, and one oral biography); and two novels. The authors hail from Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. CHECK THEM OUT:

9781101871867indexMemphis native Alan Lightman, who wrote the Foreword to Southern Writers on Writing, has 2 new books already out this year: In Praise of Wasting Time (May 2018) and Searching for Stars on an Island in May (March 2018).

 

 

 

9781611179071Katherine Clark’s oral biography, My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, came out in March.

 

The BarrensProlific short story author John Floyd has another collection coming out in October: The Barrens. (He has published close to 1000 short stories!)

 

 

 

becoming-mrs-lewis-2b-web-624x943Patti Callahan Henry makes a departure from her coastal-themed novels with Becoming Mrs. Lewis, a novel about Joy Davidman, C. S. Lewis’s wife, coming in October.

 

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Harrison Scott Key brings us more humor with his new book, Congratulations! Who Are You Again?, coming in November.

 

Reddick coverNiles Reddick, another prolific short story author, brings us Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories, which will be out in August.

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Michael Farris Smith’s novel The Fighter came out in March.

 

OurPrinceofScribes_coverNicole Seitz is editor of Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, coming in September.

 

So, the contemporary canon of southern literature continues! Happy reading!

Alabama Book Tour Begins!

This week I will be joining four of the twenty-six contributors to SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at two events in Alabama: Tuesday, June 5 at 5 p.m. we’ll be at the Little Professor Bookcenter in Homewood, Alabama. 

Lil Professor flier

 

And then Wednesday we’ll be at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (I’ll be returning to Alabama June 15-17 for events at Orange Beach and Fairhope, so stay tuned for those next week!) Hope to see lots of folks from Birmingham and Tuscaloosa this week!

Ernest & Hadley flier

 

Authentic Happiness

NYM_top1I just scored a 3.08 on a scale of 1 to 5 on the Authentic Happiness Inventory designed by folks at the University of Pennsylvania.  The score reflects my overall “happiness” compared with others in my age group, zip code, education level, gender, and occupation group. Although I think it’s interesting that “writer” isn’t even listed as an occupation, so I checked “artist,” the closest option to my occupation. Why did I take this inventory?

This morning, with my morning coffee, I read an article in the recent issue of New York Magazine, “The Cure for New York Face,” about Professor Laurie Santos’s new course at Yale University, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. I was struck by the statistics—especially among people who seem to have lots of “reasons” to be happy, from an exterior point of view. Of course there’s lots about two things that seem related to our “happiness”—time and money, and how we value them and spend them.

In Praise coverSome parts of the article reminded me of the wonderful little book I read recently by Alan Lightman, In Praise of Wasting Time. I bought and read this book a few weeks ago, primarily because its author wrote the Foreword to the anthology I edited that was recently published by University Press of Mississippi, Southern Writers on Writing. Alan is from Memphis, but teaches at MIT now. A physicist. And a novelist. Interesting combination, and he brings both of those gifts to bear in his book, and his TED talk.

Last fall I did a post about Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, “Moments of Happiness.”

Last March I did a post reflecting on a Wall Street Journal article, “Two Types of Happiness.”

The same month I read and reviewed Daphne Merken’s book, This Close to Happy.

Five years ago I was blogging about an article in Psychology Today: “Mindfulness Does Not Lead to Happiness.”

And six years ago I wrote this one: “Permission to NOT Be Happy.”

Are you seeing a trend here? And yet, I do feel that I am “happier” now that I was six years ago. And I’m actually a bit surprised that I didn’t score higher on the Authentic Happiness Inventory. But I do tend to be quite honest and in touch with my feelings. From a spiritual point of view, I sometimes wonder how important “happiness” is, as opposed to what seem to be deeper states like “peace” and “contentment.”

thOne thing I found interesting in the New York Magazine article was the author’s comments about money and happiness. His study showed that $75,000/year seems to be the salary “scientifically proven to provide the maximum amount of well-being.” So, he noted that in one study people making $30,000 a year were asked what salary would make them truly happy. The average answer was $50,000. But people making $100,000 a year said, on average, $250,000 would make them happy. Maybe it’s the old adage that the more we have, the more we want. I’m thinking about this now, not in terms of financial success, but with my writing career. Five years ago I was working with a New York literary agent (whom I would later part ways with) on my novel, CHERY BOMB, wondering if it would ever be published. When it came out last year—with a small press in Mississippi and not with one of the “big five”—I was “happy” to be published. It was a lifelong dream finally coming true. Actually, having three books published last year was pretty amazing. And a fourth this month. So, why is it that I still want “more”? Why am I now querying literary agents again (for my linked short story collection) rather than submitting it to an academic press?

the-quest-for-authentic-happiness-460x291I put this question to a very spiritual person whom I trust, and he encouraged me that it was a normal progression in my career to desire this next step up. That I wasn’t being obsessive about “success” in an unhealthy manner.

And yet I find myself praying—yes—for more success. My novel is entered into two prestigious writing contests and I’m waiting to hear the results this summer. Would I find a greater level of “happiness” if it wins one of those awards? Or even makes a short list or becomes a finalist? Of course I believe that would make me happier, but is that a superficial goal?

Again, I’ve been struggling with this for years, as these posts show:

“I Want More” (from 2016)

“We Want More” (from 2013)

It IS interesting to read those posts now, as someone who quit drinking almost nine months ago. I still want MORE (potato chips, chocolate, and—in conflict with those cravings—a skinnier body) almost every day, but I take encouragement from the fact that I was able to tame my out-of-control desire for more vodka, and hope that eventually the strength (and God’s grace) that enabled me to do that will cross over into other areas of my life. Like food. And contentment in my career.

I’d love to hear from my readers about your take on happiness. And if any of you take the Authentic Happiness Inventory, please let me know what you thought about it. Meanwhile, have a great weekend!

Storks and Clocks in Strasbourg

stork on cathedralOn the 6th day of our Viking River Cruise we crossed the Rhine and spent a morning in France, touring the beautiful town of Strasbourg. There are many things to love about this historic town, but my mind was on babies when we visited. Or really, just one baby. We have friends who are in the process of adopting a little girl, and while we were in Strasbourg we learned about the storks that come there and build nests every year—like this one on top of the Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre Dame. Inside the Cathedral, I prayed for this child and the family she would become part of. And I loved all the stork-related art all over town.

stork art

So WHY do the storks come to this area of Alsace every year? The geography of Alsace—in the plain of the Rhine with abundant marshland (at least before the canalisation of the Rhine after the second world war) made it a good feeding ground for storks. The area was also within reach of their winter migration areas in North Africa. North Africa! Can you imagine that they fly that far every year?

CathedralBut back to the cathedral. The first version of the church was begun in 1015, but fire destroyed most of the original Romanesque building. By the time that cathedral was being renovated (at the end of the 12th century, this time with red stones carried from the nearby mountains of Vosges), the gothic architectural style has reached Alsace and the future cathedral was starting to develop all characteristics of gothic aesthetics.

There is much to admire inside. I love these reflections by Victor Hugo:

“The church portals are beautiful, particularly the Roman portal; there are truly superb figures on horseback, the rose-window is noble and well-cut, the entire front of the church is a clever poem. But the true triumph of this Cathedral is the spire. It is a veritable tiara of stone with its crown and its cross. It is a gigantic and delicate marvel.”

astronomical clockOne of the most fascinating features of the church is the astronomical clock. A principal work of the Renaissance, this mechanical astronomical clock is an invention put together by various artists, mathematicians and technicians. Swiss watchmakers, sculptors, painters and creators of automatons all worked together to build this amazing automate. The present mechanism dates from 1842 and is especially attractive for the work of its automatons, which, every day at 12.30 pm, all start their show. We were fortunate to be there for one of its movements. It was too tall to capture in a video, but I got a few stills.

IMG_3041The astronomical clock offers you a view of the different stages of life, which are personified by a child, a teenager, an adult and an old man, who pass before Death. Above this are the apostles who walk before Christ. Their passage is punctuated by the beatings of wings and the song of a large rooster. In front of the clock is the marvelous Pillar of Angels, which, in a very original manner, represents the Last Judgment.

cellistAfter touring the cathedral and walking around the cobblestone streets window-shopping (we didn’t really have time for real shopping) we enjoyed gelato at an outdoor café right in front of the cathedral. And an impromptu cello concert. Another magical day.

Orthodox ChurchOh, and I had read that All Saints Russian Orthodox Church was being built in Strasbourg, and we drove past it on our tour bus but it wasn’t close enough for us to walk back to see it close up later. Here’s the shot I snapped through the bus window. Stay tuned for our next day’s excursion to the medieval village of Colmar, our final destination before arriving in Basel to fly home. Thanks for joining me!

(I’ll close with a few more photos in Strasbourg.)

bike scene

 

river scene 3

 

river scene

 

Heidelberg, Mark Twain, and Worms

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

The first time I went to Europe, about 36 years ago, my husband and I stayed in a small village on the Neckar River, about 50 miles from Heidelberg. This was in around 1982. We were there for a symposium my husband was part of, and they had us tucked away in a remote little village. I remember playing tennis with a French girl on courts that overlooked the Neckar River. And opening our windows every morning to story-book scenes of milk being delivered outside our castle-like hotel. Our only site-seeing excursion during the symposium was to Heidelberg.

 Bill Susan castleThirty six years later we returned, on Day 5 of our Viking Rhine River Cruise. Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest university town, known as the cradle of the German Romantic movement. It’s most famous example of baroque architecture, the Heidelberg Castle is a magnificent red standstone ruin perched 330 feet above the river. It was partially destroyed by fire in the 17th century.

 

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

 

 

 

 

As our tour bus ascended to the castle, I snapped a picture of one of the hotels where Mark Twain stayed in the summer of 1878, Hotel Schrieder, now a Crowne Plaza. Of Heidelberg Twain said the city was “the last possibility of the beautiful.” In 1880 he published “A Tramp Abroad,” which includes the story of a raft journey down the river. graf w Red Ox InnThis was published several years before “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Many people in Heidelberg believe, therefore, that the Neckar was as influential as the Mississippi to Twain’s writing.

 Later we walked past this graffiti piece, which featured the Red Ox Inn, where Twain spent much of his leisure time. The guide didn’t point the graffiti out, but I’m always on the watch for street art and was thrilled to see the Red Ox Inn included.

 

The castle moat and grounds were fascinating, but the views of the Old City and river and buildings across the river from the castle were my favorite part of the tour.

view

moat

 

Our boat actually docked at Speyer for our Heidelberg tour, on the west bank of the Rhine. There was a beautiful park there, and lots of local art.

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Protestant Church at Speyer

Protestant Church at Speyer

 

We took an informal walk into town without the group and into the “Memorial Church of the Protestation” a historic Luthern and Reformed church built between 1893 and 1904, to commemorate the Diet of Speyer.

 church inerior

 

The term “protestant” originated in Speyer in 1529 at the Diet of Speyer, when 14 free cities of Germany and six Lutheran princes protested the Edict of Worms that had banned the writings of Martin Luther and labeled him a heretic and enemy of the state. I grew up Presbyterian and was a huge fan of Martin Luther, but I never thought about why it was called the Edict of Worms until we cruised alongside Worms headed into Speyer. So much history all around us on this amazing trip.

 

Stay tuned for my next post where we head across the Rhine and dip our toes into France for one day….

The Spitting Boy and Cable Cars

IMG_2791On the morning of Day 4 of our cruise we took a walking tour of Koblenz, Germany, a 2000-year-old trading settlement situated where the Rhine and Moselle Rivers meet. In fact, there’s a small peninsula jutting out into the confluence of these rivers with a public park called Deutsches Eck, the city’s famed German Corner. The park features a large equestrian statue of Emperor Wilheim I.

From there we took a cable car ride up to Braubach, where the 13th-century Marksburg Castle watches over the town. We didn’t take the tour of the castle, but it was fun to see the medieval fair that was taking place on the grounds on this beautiful Saturday morning.

IMG_2798Back down in Koblenz, we toured the Old Town and the baroque City Hall, with so many influences from ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Napoleonic era. In touching distance of the Deutsches Eck are the pointed Romanesque towers of the oldest church in Koblenz. Once attached to a monastery, the Basilica of St. Castor is part of that UNESCO World Heritage Site for the epochal events that have taken place since its foundation 1,200 years ago. It was at this place in 842 that 110 representatives negotiated the division of the Frankish Empire. Most of the architecture is from the 12th century and although the church did take damage in the Second World War, this was reparable.

Our guide warned us not to stand in front of "The Spitting Boy"

Our guide warned us not to stand in front of “The Spitting Boy”

The citizens of Koblenz are especially fond of their children. We loved this statue of “The Spitting Boy,” which playfully spits water out at admirers every two minutes.

IMG_2815They also love ducks, like this one we passed on our walk. And this statue of a little girl with ducks in Old Town.

IMG_2814What a lovely way to spend a morning. Back on the ship we cruised the Middle Rhine all afternoon—the most scenic part of the cruise with a multitude of castles, so stay tuned for my next post! Meanwhile, enjoy a few more pictures from Koblenz!

Between the cobblestone streets and the ancient architecture, Koblenz is a lush, green village.

Between the cobblestone streets and the ancient architecture, Koblenz is a lush, green village.

More fun... an artist is going around Germany painting a banana on the outside of museums that he approves of, like this one in Koblenz.

More fun… an artist is going around Germany painting a banana on the outside of museums that he approves of, like this one in Koblenz.

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In the courtyard of a museum, an artist installed a statue of his thumb. I guess he was giving Koblenz a thumbs up!

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On the cable car ride….

Cologne, Cathedrals, and Beer

My SinMy mother’s favorite cologne was My Sin by Lanvin. When she was born in 1928, My Sin had only been available for four years. As far as I can remember, this was her only fragrance. I was thinking about it yesterday, as I commemorated the second anniversary of her death. I always loved the way she smelled. When I was young I wore Youth Dew by Estee Lauder. It came out in 1953, when I was only two years old. I remember wearing it in high school and college, but in my young married years (starting in 1970) I somehow lost interested in fragrances. My husband, who wore British Sterling and English Leather like everyone else in the 1960s and 70s, also lost his taste for colognes early. I’m not sure why we both did this. But recently I’ve wondered if I might want to try something again. The commercials are enticing—like Gabrielle, by Chanel. “Before creating the House of Chanel, Coco was Gabrielle. A rebel at heart…passionate and free.” When I was younger I considered myself a rebel. Sometimes I still do. So, I was sorry we didn’t have much free time on our walking tour of Cologne, to sample the local fragrances.

IMG_2703Yes, Day 3 of our Viking River Cruise included a walking tour of the city of Cologne, Germany, in the morning and “bar hopping” to three brew houses in the evening—quite a contrast in cultures in this beautiful city. From across the Rhine, where our boat was docked, we could see the twin spires of Kölner Dom, the Catholic Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was begun in 1248 and was finally “completed” in 1880, but as our tour guide pointed out, it’s always under construction, renovation, or repair.

IMG_2730The architecture all around the Old City was a mix of Gothic and Roman. Storybook images surrounded us at every turn.

 

And of course I always love the street art—like these two sidewalk pieces.

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In the evening we walked along the cobblestone streets and stopped at three Kolsch brew houses. Kolsch is a light, crisp beer, brewed only in Cologne. Brauhaus servers, known as kobe, bring the Kolsche from the barrel to the table in small 7-ounce glasses, so that the beer stays cold while you’re drinking it. I’ve never been a beer drinker (even when I was a drinker) so this part of the outing was lost on me, but I enjoyed the traditional dinner at Brauhaus zur Malzmuhle, one of the most popular brauhaus restaurants in Cologne since 1858. Our young guide and his charming fiancé made the evening even more fun, as did the views of the cathedral from across the river.

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Back on the boat at the end of the day music and trivia games were going on in the lounge. One night my husband and I won the music trivia game, and every night there was music, dancing, and games of some sort. Going through the locks was also an adventure, and one night we even went up on the upstairs deck to experience the adventure up close. Even on our state room balcony, we could reach out and touch the (slimy) walls of the locks as our boat ascended to the next level in the river.

VIew from the top deck of our boat, as I was reading and relaxing after the morning tour of Cologne, with a view of the Cathedral just across the river.

VIew from the top deck of our boat, as I was reading and relaxing after the morning tour of Cologne, with a view of the Cathedral just across the river.

We always slept well, looking forward to opening the curtains to see where we had landed during the night and what adventures awaited us the next day.

The Cat and the Cradle

IMG_2599Another excursion that I was surprised by on our Rhine River cruise was also in the small town of Kinderdijk, where we visited the cheese-making farm. Again, I’m a city girl, and I rarely find joy in rural settings, but the history and culture and charm of these historic windmills was something I didn’t expect.

 

IMG_2649The windmills in Kinderdijk—the largest concentration of windmills in the Netherlands—are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These 19 windmills are a feast for the eyes, and their story is fascinating.

 

The families who lived—and continue to live—in them keep them working, and they are called “millers.” When I first heard our tour guide use the term, I thought she was talking about people who mill grain. But no, they are people who keep the windmills working.

 

IMG_2646The windmills were erected in the 1600s to drain the Alblasserwaard polders, which had suffered floods since the 13th century. One such flood, the Saint Elizabeth Flood of 1421, is both the source of the name Kinderdijk and of the associated fairy tale, “The Cat and the Cradle”: after the storm, a wooden cradle was spotted on the flood waters, in which a cat jumped to and fro to keep the cradle afloat.

 

When the cradle approached the dry land of the dyke, the locals discovered a baby inside—hence the name Kinderdijk, Dutch for “children’s dyke. “

 

IMG_2648The one windmill that we were allowed to go inside had pictures of the family who lived there years ago, with their 15 children! The sad story is that one of the toddlers was running towards the blades of the windmill and the mother rushed to stop her, saving her child, but losing her own life.

 

 

IMG_2654When I put pictures of the inside of the windmill on Facebook, my Goddaughter Katherine, who has three teenagers, commented that her kids wanted to live in a windmill! (They love adventure.) The quarters were so small that I can’t imagine where everyone slept. The beds were tiny, and I heard that the adults slept sitting up. It would take a hardy bunch to want to live there and keep the windmill working!

 

Stay tuned as I move into the city of Cologne, Germany, in my next post.

 

The millers have some big shoes to fill....

The millers have some big shoes to fill….

Cat in Kinderdijk

Cat in Kinderdijk

 

Cows and Cheese in the Netherlands

IMG_2579I’m 67 years old, and as far as I can remember, I had never touched a cow (or even been on a working farm) until last week. We flew into Amsterdam, and after a brief tour, we boarded our Viking long boat for a cruise down the Rhine River, which would end a week later in Basel, Switzerland. You can see the whole itinerary on the Viking web site if you’re interested. (I highly recommend the trip!) Meanwhile, I’m going to write reflections on each stop along the way here on my blog, so if you’d like to see more than just the photos and captions I shared on Facebook and

Shot this from our bus en route to the dairy farm.

Shot this from our bus en route to the dairy farm.

Instagram last week, follow along here for a couple of weeks.

Our boat arrived in Kinderdijk, Netherlands, on May 10 while we were sleeping, and it was magical to wake up in such a beautiful place. I’m surprised to say that our tour of a Dutch cheese/dairy farm was one of this city girl’s favorite events of the week.

IMG_2572The Kuiper Farm is currently owned by a fifth generation farmer, who gave us a tour of the barn, where I petted a cow for the first time I can ever remember. We learned about the personalities of the cows—how #93 was the leader—and so my friend Deb started calling me #93 for the rest of the trip.

 The cows have to stay inside the barn all winter and on the spring day when they are finally let out to graze in the pastures they go running and leaping joyfully, celebrating their freedom. You can watch this on several You Tube videos, like this one, of the “dancing cows.”

Desiree showing us how cheese is made.

Desiree showing us how cheese is made.

The farmer’s daughter, Desiree, showed us how cheese was made and we sampled the best gouda I’ve ever tasted. (And yes, we brought some home.) And the good news is that the farmer’s 21-year-old son has agreed to buy the farm and keep it in the family as his dad retires… and his fiancé wants to learn to make cheese.

 

Love her glasses!

Love her glasses!

The farmer’s wife makes the cheese, and they sell it in their shop to tourists and locals. I wondered what their lives are like, on a farm where the cows must be milked twice a day and the production of cheese is almost a 24/7 process. There must be something rewarding about this life, since so far five generations have stayed “down on the farm.” Maybe they’ve never seen Paris….

My hubby holding a 25-pound gouda!

My hubby holding a 25-pound gouda!

The locals line up for what they call “grass cheese” every spring, when the first batch of cheese is made after the cows have been grazing the fresh grass rather than the dried hay they eat all winter. Who knew that “grass cheese” was a thing? And you can even get it in Georgia!

 one-good-mama-boneAs I spent time with these cows, I thought about my friend Bren McClain’s novel, One Good Mama Bone, and the inspiration that “Mama Red” is to the protagonist in the story. I appreciate her book so much more after being in touch with the cows at the Kuiper Farm, although the cows in her story are raised for beef rather than dairy.

 Our next excursion was to visit the Kinderdijk windmills—another “first” for this city gal! Stay tuned!

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