Thirty years ago today, my husband, Dr. William/Father Basil Cushman, was ordained into the priesthood of the Orthodox Christian Church, specifically the Antiochian Archdiocese. I did a blog post about this in 2010, “Axios! He is Worthy!”
Our recently retired pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, was also ordained that day, as were several other priests and deacons from St. John in Memphis and St. Peter in Jackson, Mississippi.
This happened the day after a group of about 70 of us “pilgrims” were Chrismated into the Orthodox Church. For some of us, it was the end of a seventeen-year spiritual journey, one that was often wrought with peril, but a journey that ended (and in some ways began) with the blessed gift of finding the pearl for which we had been searching all those years.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a number of years, you know that there were some times when I was frustrated with my church home. Honestly, I still get frustrated at times. Orthodoxy is an ancient tradition (some say it was the first/original Christian church) and sometimes the very “rules” that have helped hold it together for centuries seem to hold too tightly. I’m not an obedient person, and I have always struggled against anything restrictive. But today I’m finding my way in this beautiful faith after thirty years.
Tonight at St. John Orthodox Church—my parish here in Memphis since 1988—we will celebrate our clergy who were ordained thirty years ago. Most of them have served unselfishly while maintaining full time secular jobs, while others have sacrificed those secular careers to serve the church full time. Either way, they are all “full time” servants, and we thank God for them.
And so I say again, as we declared thirty years ago with Bishop Antoun ordained these men, “Axios!” which means “He is worthy!”
I just finished reading my 6th book of 2017—This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression by Daphne Merkin. Looking at my list so far this year, I’ve read two novels and four nonfiction books. I’m getting in the mood for some southern fiction next, and have recently gotten interested (again) in Anne Rivers Siddons, probably because of Pat Conroy’s words about her in A Lowcountry Heart. I read a couple of her books many years ago, and now I’m thinking of reading one of her oldest books Heartbreak Hotel (1976), which is about growing up in the South in the 1950s. But I’ve also got a copy of The Girls of August. Maybe I’ll save that one for this summer. But for now, back to This Close to Happy.
Daphne Merkin is an accomplished writer, with regular contributions to The New Yorker, Elle, The New York Times and other publications. Her novel Enchantment won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for best novel on a Jewish Theme, and one of her two collections of essays was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Here’s an excellent review in the New York Times by Andrew Solomon.
And here’s an interview on NPR.
So I won’t write a review here, other than to say that I think this is an amazing book. I’ve read a fair amount of books about mental illness in general and depression in particular. This is one of the best. Merkin not only knows her stuff—from years of therapy and pharmaceutical treatment and detailed research—but she has also lived with this disease her whole life. Growing up in a home where she was abused by a nanny and never received even basic, minimal nurturing from her parents, she suffered clinical depression even as a child, through post-partum times, into young adulthood and middle age. And yet, she is still here. (She writes about suicide a lot in the book.)
One of my favorite quotes:
The opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness, but a state of relative all-right-ness.
There’s so much wisdom in that one sentence. When I’m depressed, I imagine a “high” I’m missing from life, not just a calm “normal,” whatever that might be. And being a writer, I’ve always assumed that I come by my depression honestly, as did Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and a plethora of others. As Merkin says:
It is by now well documented that nonlinear creative types, artists and writers in particular, often suffer form depression; whole books have been devoted to exploring the high incidence of both unipolar depression and bipolar depression in this group. Anywhere you look, there they are, the unhappy poets and painters, drinking or drugging themselves into a stupor….
I can relate. When I’m actively (and successfully) working on a creative project, I experience a bit of a high. But as soon as the project is finished or I’m floundering with what to do next, depression creeps in. What does Merkin say life has to offer at these times?
But perhaps I’ve all along underrated the pull of life itself, slyly offering up its enticements. I tend to give short shrift to these enticements when I’m sinking, but they are very real. They would include but are not limited to the supreme diversion of reading and the gratifications of friendship, the enveloping bond of motherhood and the solace to be found in small pleasures, such as an achy Neil Young son or finding the perfect oversized but not voluminous white shirt.
The things in life that entice me might not be all the same things that pull Merkin back from the edge, although some are similar. She’s not a spiritual person (not even a religious Jew, and doesn’t believe in an after life) like I am, so there’s that. Even at my darkest moments, I would never consider suicide. Instead I cower emotionally at home with bags of potato chips and excessive amounts of vodka or wine. Reading Merkin’s book doesn’t fill me with hope (not her intention, she says) but gives me a feeling of community with others who suffer depression. Mine is extremely mild compared to hers, but she would be the first to tell me that it’s mine, and not to diminish it.
So I give this book five stars. And I hope that Daphne Merkin has found a prolonged state of relative all-rightness. Actually, I’d love to picture her even closer to happy.
Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal had an excellent article in the Life & Arts section, “‘There’s This Cute Boy…’ Secrets to Getting Teens to Talk,” by Anne Marie Chaker. The article is about kids and their parents writing journals to each other, sometimes instead of talking, but hopefully to break the ice for difficult conversations.
The article reminded me of something I’ve blogged about before—the many letters I wrote to my grandmother during my childhood (in the 1950s) and into my teenage years and even the early years of my marriage. I felt “safe” telling my grandmother things I might not tell my mother—including how I felt when my mother and brother yelled at each other (which happened a lot, and I would go to my room and turn up the radio to block it out) but also poignant moments like my first kiss. I have a shoebox full of those letters, which are a treasure.
So sometime last year I started writing to my granddaughters who live in Denver, and receiving precious letters back from them, especially the older two, who are 6 and 7. Recent letters from these two were especially touching.
Grace (7) told me she is studying Black history in second grade. She said her teacher told them that there was slavery in Mississippi, and since I’m from Mississippi, she asked whether I knew any slaves when I was a little girl. I responded by explaining that I lived many years after the slaves were freed, but that unfortunately many Black people were still being treated unfairly when I was a little girl (and even now), and how important it is for us not to judge people by the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes (this granddaughter is Asian), or which country they are from.
Anna (6) wrote a letter to Pops (my husband) asking him two questions: (1) What is your favorite color? And (2) What is your favorite animal? He answered her back: BLUE, and LION. Now, I’ve been married to this man for almost 47 years, and it never occurred to me to ask him either of these questions, so we had a revealing moment and discussion. Turns out he loves lions not only because they are majestic and beautiful, but because of the lion, “Aslan,” who represents Christ in the Narnia Chronicles. He has asked me to bring some of the Narnia books with us to the beach next month so he can read them to his granddaughters.
Today I know that “Face Time” (which we enjoy with all 4 granddaughters) has probably replaced hand written letters as the primary means of communication between the generations, but I plan to keep up the letter writing as long as my granddaughters will participate. There’s something really special about it. I feel a different kind of closeness in this exchange, and I hope they will keep responding to my letters!
What a fabulous birthday I’ve had. Dinner out on birthday eve with my sweet hubby last night. Visits from several friends today. Packages and cards in the mail. Phone calls and text messages from children. And about 150 Facebook birthday wishes. I am feeling the love. THANK YOU, everyone!
Someone sent me this hilarious sign they saw on Facebook. He sent it because this past Friday night I rolled a joint on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, following my reading of Tangles and Plaques at Square Books. The joint was my left ankle. I had gone to dinner with a group of folks following the reading (with over 80 in attendance at Square Books!) and was walking back to my car when I missed the edge of a curb and fell. Thankfully I didn’t break a hip or hurt my neck or back or something more serious than my ankle.
And also thankfully it’s not broken. This morning’s x-ray shows some torn ligaments that should heal in a few weeks. Back in 2013 when I broke my other ankle and leg in a car wreck, I had two surgeries, wore a cast, then a walking boot. The walking boot was uncomfortable because it made my stride uneven, I didn’t have any safe, flat shoes that were high enough. Now they ‘ve got this cool new thing called an “Even Up” that you put on the bottom of your shoe to make your feet at even heights. What a difference that makes!
I posted lots of pictures on Facebook from the event at Square Books Friday night, and also at Lemuria in Jackson on Saturday, so I’ll only repost one here. It was so much fun seeing several of my Tri Delt sorority sisters in Oxford (including my “big sister” whom I hadn’t seen since my wedding in 1970!) and several high school classmates and other friends and family in Jackson. Great reception at both Mississippi events. Thanks to everyone who helped organize them, and to everyone who came to the readings and bought books! Next event for Tangles and Plaques is a salon in a private home here in Memphis, then on to WordsWorth Books in Little Rock, Arkansas on the 18th. What a ride!