Life is Hard

Yesterday I attended a funeral for the brother of a young friend who goes to my church. His brother took his own life. Father Phillip Rogers, our pastor at St. John Orthodox Church, gave a wonderful talk at the grave-side burial service. Basically (but with much more eloquence and with tears) he said:

  1. Death is terrible. Whether it happens to a child or an older person, or someone in between, it’s not what God created us for, and we mourn it.
  2. Life is hard. Whether a loved one dies from a physical or mental illness, young or old, often it reflects a struggle to find light in a dark world.
  3. Christ is risen! When Father Phillip said these words, many of us at the service responded, “Indeed, He is risen!” as we often did during the recent Paschal (Easter) season at St. John Orthodox Church.
  4. God loves us. Even more than the family and friends who were present at the burial love their son, brother, or friend who died.

thoughtAnd then my friend Ethan spoke (also eloquently) about his brother—their lives growing up in a rural setting where they enjoyed nature and the beauty of God’s creation. Their mother’s love, and her love for God, which she instilled in them.

There was a slight breeze at Elmwood Cemetery, as I found relief from the early summer heat under the shade of the green tent set up near Erin’s grave. Our pastor’s words (and his tears) also gave relief, to our grief, to our near-despair. But I won’t despair, as I believe Father Phillips’ words that God loves Erin, and has him in his loving embrace.

Life is hard. But Christ is Risen!

Truly Human: Recovering Your Humanity in a Broken World

My dear friend Kevin Scherer has written an important book. I was honored to be an early reader for Truly Human. Today I’m sharing the review I posted on Amazon for Kevin’s wonderful book, TRULY HUMAN: RECOVERING YOUR HUMANITY IN A BROKEN WORLD.

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In Truly Human Kevin “retraces the steps of humanity” from the Garden of Eden (first three chapters of Genesis) through the actions and emotions of the humans at “the pit” at Ground Zero in New York City, saying:

“Someone who is truly human will manifest the activities, or energies, of God in their life.”

But most of the time we don’t manifest those energies. Why not?

He lays out in clear theological and psychological terms what man’s condition is, why we are the way we are, and how we can own our brokenness and find healing. Along the way he deals with some tough topics, including a straight-forward answer to a universal question:

“Why is there evil?” And, if a good God exists, “Why does He allow it?” If we are made in the image of an intelligent God, these are fair and reasonable questions, and the same scripture that informs these questions also gives us the answers…. We know from the first three chapters of Genesis that God created only what was good. It’s the human distortion of this good that we call evil. God allows this distortion, because to prevent it would require Him to restrict our free will, and without free will love and relationships are impossible.”

I’ve always struggled with why God allows suffering, but Kevin puts it in a clear light for me, helping me accept its place in my life. He describes the cycle of suffering that we are caught in because of the fall: victimization, survival, and perpetration—especially as parents:

“Despite our parents’ deep love for us, they were trying to survive their own pains and suffering. As a result, sometimes we were the emotional victims of their coping mechanisms. They, like us, didn’t set out to harm anyone else, but the reality is that they did, and we do too. When we can face up to the reality that we often victimize others in an attempt to manage our own pain, we reach a spiritual turning point.”

I have already worked through a lifelong process of forgiving my mother for her verbal and emotional abuse of me, but this insight also helps me forgive myself for the ways I failed my own children. And in recent years, I’ve begun to embrace suffering on a very small scale. Kevin’s words help me continue the process:

“Ultimately, the goal is not to remove suffering from our lives, but to transform it into a redemptive experience. Like Christ on the cross, we can abandon ourselves to the will of God and offer up our suffering in anticipation of His mercy. In these moments, we become truly human.”

Truly-Human-Kevin-Scherer__53082.1496150954.500.659In Chapter 3, “The Logic of Suffering,” Kevin takes this experience further:

“The personal experience of suffering begins when we perceive that our reality is unbearable and out of control. Our perceptions give way to feelings. Generally, when we feel out of control it triggers a self-protective and aggressive emotional response—fear, frustration, anger, bitterness, resentment, etc. These feelings can be directed outward or inward, but they are always characterized by a deep dissatisfaction with the way things are.”

That dissatisfaction often leads, as Kevin explains, to our lives being controlled by vices, rather than by living as truly humans:

“The experience and living out of these vices is the story of humanity. By understanding the psycho-logics and interconnectedness of these vices, we will begin to see the areas of our own life in need of healing and develop a deeper empathy and compassion for others who struggle with them.”

Here’s an excellent description of how the vices work together against us:

“Gluttony, lust, and greed are vicious thinking patterns targeted at how we relate to food, people, and possessions. These vices comfort the pain of our broken emptiness and give us the illusion of an identity. These vices are fueled by, and in turn produce, vanity and pride. And when the first three vices inevitably fail to satisfy the God-given longing in our hearts, they produce the vices of anger and self-pity which, if left unchecked, leads to the vice of despair. This cycle perpetually feeds itself and leads its victims into a deeper and deeper experience of hell on earth.”

So how do we “wake up” from this cycle and move towards becoming the human beings we are meant to be? Kevin says it starts with building a personal inventory (sounds a bit like a twelve steps program, but it’s so much more):

“There are five basic questions we can begin using immediately to build a personal inventory. I call them Identity Paths. These questions act like paths that lead us back to what we really believe about ourselves—the truth and the lies. When used in conjunction with the psycho-logic model, explained in chapter three, they can help us embrace the distortions of our lives and who we’ve become.”

Scherer outlines these questions in the book, and suggests we ask them in a specific way in the presence of a friend, pastor, therapist, family member, etc. In the Orthodox Church—of which he and I are both members—this is available in the sacrament of confession, in which I continue to find healing on a regular basis. But it’s also available through professional counselors, trusted friends, and family members. Kevin describes the healing provided by the church in Chapter 6, “Checking Yourself In,” where he talks about the importance of the church being a spiritual hospital.

And then in Chapter 7 he moves us from the church to the outside world in “Giving Your Life Away,” with the importance of reaching out to those in need, to the poor and suffering in the world. His personal stories of working as a volunteer at Ground Zero in New York City after 9/11, and also on the campus of Virginia Tech after the shootings there, as well as leading young people on pilgrimages to help others in various places around the world are real-life testimonies to the way these interactions can change our lives:

“I’ve discovered that the Christian life can only be fulfilled in sacrificial acts of love. Everything else is just talk. Love is our human vocation, and it is most perfectly revealed on the cross.”

He has helped the young people he has worked with see everyone—especially the poor and homeless—as “real people” and not just random faces:

“We must be willing to take the time and emotional energy to see people for who they really are and the situations in which they really live. We must seek to love real people, not caricatures—“for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).”

Kevin takes us a step further by helping us learn to control our minds, to stay in the present, where the real work of becoming human happens:

“Our broken humanity has lost its natural intuition and no longer knows what to do with the present moment. The mind is designed by God to be active. It is the organ He gave us to be co-creators with Him. With our minds we learn, solve, and plan. In the case of the past or the future, our minds race endlessly to solve the problems of our anxieties and fears.

With the present moment, however, our minds are confused as to what should be done. Unless there is a clear and imposing objective, our minds naturally speed past the present moment toward the areas of greatest pleasure or pain. In the case of pleasure, the mind races to clear the path or duplicate the experience; and in the case of pain, it seeks to alleviate the stress and discomfort of psychological/emotional equilibrium—they are both distorted survival mechanisms.

In order to fully recover our humanity, we must regain control over our minds. The first step in this realignment operation is to help our minds stay in the present moment.”

photoThis book isn’t just for Orthodox Christians, or any “brand” of Christians. It’s for everyone who is open to understanding why we are the way we are, and how we can change and become the humans God intended us to be. I can’t recommend it highly enough. BUY IT NOW. READ IT. SHARE IT.

Kevin Scherer is a writer and speaker with twenty years of pastoral counseling experience. As a former evangelical pastor and Eastern Orthodox priest, he has pastored in seven churches and served as the executive director of two nationwide Christian ministries. He also served as a chaplain at Ground Zero following the events of 9/11 as well as the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings.

Discovering Elizabeth Strout

static1.squarespace.comI never read Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. I saw the HBO series and somehow felt a heaviness about it that made me think the book would also feel heavy. Even though it won the Pulitzer Prize. But years later her writing was recommended to me by an author friend who suggested that reading her prose would help me with my own. She suggested I start with My Name is Lucy Barton, and so I did. What a powerful narrative. And a unique style and voice. She develops great empathy for her characters and at times I felt like I was living inside Lucy’s life. The complex relationship between a mother and a daughter was so well-drawn. Having lost my mom to Alzheimer’s just over a year ago, and having just published a book that exposes much of our complicated relationship, I was intrigued by these characters. The Washington Post calls it “a book of great openness and wisdom.”

And then another friend suggested Strout’s recent book, Anything is Possible, which I just finished reading earlier this week. Here’s what the writer Ann Patchett says about this book on Strout’s web site:

It’s hard to believe that a year after the astonishing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout could bring us another book that is by every measure its equal, but what Strout proves to us again and again is that where she’s concerned, anything is possible. This book, this writer, are magnificent.

—   Ann Patchett

ElizabethStrout-anythingispossible-coverI completely agree. A friend (this one’s an artist, not a writer) asked me if it matters what order she reads these two books in, and I suggested Lucy Barton first, because she shows back up in Anything is Possible, and it’s helpful to have read the more in-depth story of her life first. In Anything is Possible, Strout weaves the stories of numerous small-town characters throughout a narrative of hard times, hope, struggle, happiness, and the complete range of human emotions. Often the characters from one story show up in another one, which I found interesting, although it took a bit of work on my senior brain to keep up with them at times.

Taking note of Strout’s craft, I noticed that she wrote one of these books in first person and the other in third. (I’m still trying to decide which to use for my next novel, which I’ve begun in slow starts and stops.) It makes sense that she wrote Lucy’s story in first, and Anything is Possible in Third, since there are so many more characters involved in the second book. My novel-in-progress has a protagonist, but also three other main characters, so I’m probably going to opt for third person. Both books are written in past tense. I started my novel in present, but I think I’m going to change it to past before I continue. I’ll make use of quite a bit of flashback, so I’m still not sure about tense.

This week I started another book recommended by a writer friend (you see, when we writers read books, it’s part of our work, our research) as I continue figuring out how to get this next book going. It’s Australian author Liane Moriarty’s book, What Alice Forgot. (TriStar pictures is going to make it a movie, possibly starring Jennifer Anniston.) It was the author who was recommended, not particularly any one of her books (two of them have been #1 New York Times bestsellers) but this one caught my attention. I’m sure I’ll be reviewing it in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

I’m giving myself permission to do LOTS of reading right now…. Feeding the well from which I hope to draw a rich and deserving story when I’m ready to get back to work on the new novel. I’m just pretending I’m at the beach and these are my beach reads. Next up:

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith

A Million Fragile Bones by Connie May Fowler

The Cigar Factory: A Novel of Charleston by Michele Moore

 

What’s on your summer reading list?

Take Care

clift cover v6b- approved cover.inddSome time last year Elayne Clift invited me to contribute an essay to an anthology she was putting together. It was going to be about women caregivers. Ironically, I was already working on my book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I thought about contributing an excerpt, but I chose something different. I sent her a shorter version of an essay I had published in the Saint Katherine Review (Volume I, Number 2, 2012) about my last days with two people I loved dearly, both dying from cancer. “Watching” now appears as one of twenty-six essays in the collection, Take Care: Tales, Tips, and Love From Women Caregivers, edited by Clift. I’m so pleased to see this essay get new life in this book, and hopefully find many new readers. It’s a story that’s very close to my heart, and as I read it again now—nine years after I wrote it and five years after it was first published—memories of those precious but difficult days with my father, and then with a dear friend, as they were dying, seem as vivid as if they were happening today.

Clift is the perfect editor for this collection, as she learned early in her life what it meant to be a caregiver, as she explains in the preface to Take Care:

My own experience with caregiving began at an early age. My parents had married late, and while my two siblings and I were still young, both our father and mother suffered from chronic and often debilitating conditions: asthma and depression respectively. By the time I was in high school and my older sister had married, I had taken on may of the demanding tasks of caregiving, including carrying out the responsibilities that keep a home going and take care of (and worrying about) my younger brother. After our father’s death, looking out for my mother’s best interests and ensuring her care became paramount tasks that went on for many years until she died at the age of 86.

Clift did all of this while being married, raising two children, completing a graduate degree and doing volunteer work with underprivileged women. A Vermont Humanities Council Scholar, she is an award-winning writer, journalist and workshop leader, a book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, and a regular columnist for the Keene Sentinel and the Brattleboro Commons. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications.

I wasn’t familiar with the other contributors but as I read their bios and essays, I quickly realized what good company I am in. I’m honored to be part of this collection. I especially love Patti See’s “Joyful Mystery.” Her blog, “Our Long Goodbye: One Family’s Experiences with Alzheimer’s,” has been read in over 90 countries. Helen Dening gives us five helpful tips for communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s in her essay, “Lessons from My Mother: Communicating with Someone You Love Who has Alzheimer’s Disease.” Deborah Marshall, an art therapist who works with grieving hospice families, contributes three wonderful poems. Karen Clark, who received her MFA at the City College of New York once owned a bookshop in New York and now edits, proofreads, is a contributing editor for two anthologies and is at work on a novel. Her essay, “Roar Above the Hum,” made me laugh out loud and clap my hands, as she tells the story of accompanying “Corine” to dialysis and hearing her stories of her life as a civil rights activist in the sixties, founding a school in Africa, and eventually becoming the principal of a failing Harlem school and turning it into a showpiece. I could go on and on, but I hope you will get this book and read these inspirational stories for yourself!

You can purchase Take Care HERE, or on Amazon.

Indexing

IndexesI’m working on my fourth book, another anthology I’m editing: Southern Writers on Writing. The manuscript has been through the peer review process and I’ve responded to their reports. While waiting on the galleys, I’m working on something I’ve never done before. The University Press of Mississippi requires an INDEX for all of their books. You can pay someone else to do this for you, but I decided to tackle it myself. Not just to save money, but to gain the experience. And to search through the book in a different way, looking for important references that readers might look for.

First I asked the good people at the Press for guidance, and they directed me to the Chicago Manual of Style’s Chapter on Indexes. I had recently purchased the Sixteenth Edition of the manual, not realizing that I could access it online. I actually like having a hard copy of it to reference from time to time.
Next, I looked at two other books published by U Press of Mississippi in the past year or two, to get a feel for the types of people, places, and other terms that the authors included in their indexes. Then I started a Word document, with a new paragraph for each letter of the alphabet. Like this:

A
B
C

Etc.

Index Delta RainbowNext I started going through the manuscript, page by page, and selecting words that I felt were significant enough to be included in the index, and placing them under the correct letter, noting that names are listed like this: last name (comma) first name.

It’s actually kind of fun, seeing all the references to important people, places, and things in southern literature, and just in the lives of the authors who contributed the 26 essays that make up the anthology.

Once it’s complete, I’ll wait until I get the galleys to fill in the page numbers. Hopefully that will be easy enough, doing a search for each word. Although this author says he’ll never do it again, although he saved several hundred dollars by not hiring a professional indexer. (My friend who published last year with U Press of Mississippi tells me she had no problem doing her own index.)

This may not sound very creative, but in a way it is, and it’s not a bad way to spend Memorial Day when you don’t have (a) a swimming pool or (b) travel plans. When I need a break from the manuscript and from sitting at my computer, I’m cleaning out my closet. Again, not much fun but one of those tasks that feels great when you’re done. Kind of like creating an index, right?

 

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

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