Birthday Musings: People Can Change #sixmonthswithoutadrink

67th birthdayI am 67 years old today. Damn, that sounds old! But it also sounds wonderful because, as E.E. Cummings said,

“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I had my last drink SIX MONTHS AGO TODAY, on September 8, 2017. I wrote about it here:

“0 Meetings in 90 Days” (December, 2017)

and again here:

“120 Days” (January 8, 2017)

6_month_chip_magnet-re89176215e1a488c9cd00a469e07f899_x7js9_8byvr_630My closest friends are as baffled as I am about how I’ve been able to do this. Without rehab. Without AA. (Read my first post above for more info on that.) And today, six months in, I’m more convinced than ever that it has to do with:

Timing. I read Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind, at a time when I was ready to hear her words, and ready to act on them.

God’s grace. Every morning I ask God to help me make it through the day without a drink. And every evening I say thanks. Kind of like Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow. That’s exactly how I feel today!

It also has to do with believing that people can change. In my blog post from August 8, 2010, “Can People Change?” I quoted an Orthodox psychotherapist, Dr. Jamie Moran, from his essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World:

People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.

37566-People-Can-ChangeI was trying to change back then, and for many years before that. But I couldn’t seem to let go of one of the main things that gave me comfort from my suffering—both emotional and physical—alcohol. (Another thing that I’m still struggling to let go of is trying to find that comfort from food, and I’m hoping that I will learn to do that as I have learned to let go of alcohol.) Sexual abuse—both as a child and as a young adult—left me in a messy battle with God, self, and my abusers, leading first to a lifetime of disordered eating and several decades of disordered drinking.

I’ve also struggled most of my adult life with anger and depression, which are in many ways two sides of the same coin. But in these areas I also believe that people can change, and I’m thankful to see progress with both of those demons in my own life, starting ten years ago when I had a breakthrough with anger, and wrote about it in an essay that was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project: “Blocked.” And I’m continuing to learn ways to deal with depression—and its close cousin despondency—this Lent, as I read and write about Nicole Roccas’s new book, Time and Despondency.

So, as I move forward today into my sixty-eighth year of this amazing life that God has given me, I will try to continue to leave a space for God. Because I believe that people can change.

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 3

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERLast week I shared excerpts from essays by four of the twenty-six contributors to SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May): Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry. And if you missed it, the week before I featured Neil White’s enticing blurb, excerpts from Alan Lightman’s Foreword, and essays by Jim Dees and Joe Formichella.

This week I have four more sneak previews to share. Grab some popcorn and Coke (or whatever) and enjoy:


Sonja LivingstonWe have to remind ourselves of our riches. Of the importance of what we have within us—all that we’ve seen and heard and stored away. We have an obligation to our words, to the people who said them, and to what we know to be real in the world. Your particular stories and the beautiful sounds that only you can make is what will save us during troubled times. When we let ourselves sing—really sing—what comes from within us belongs not just to you or me, but to all of us. This never stops amazing me. One true voice. Nothing less than stardust.—Sonja Livingston, from “Stardust: An Essay on Voice in Four Parts”


Sally ThomasonStories about and by southerners have shown me that good people, in spite of seemingly insurmountable problems and personal pain, spiritually, or perhaps organically, survive and grow through heart-to-heart connections—care and love for one’s family; care and love for one’s community, care and love for one’s land, care and love for one’s self, and care and love for the other, regardless of race or life station…. The more I read and deeply listened to the writings of southerners about the South, who so often express my thoughts better than I could express them myself, I realized, I am indeed a southerner—the South is where I belong.—Sally Palmer Thomason, from “How I Became a Southerner”


Julie CantrellMany in life say the earth is our mother. If that’s the case, then the South is the lap into which we all crawl to hear her story. It is the place where we learn a language of folklore and fairytales, happy-ever-afters and made-up myths. Here, swaddled in kudzu beneath the bower of magnolias, we nurse from the bosom of the universe’s bard. We nestle snug in her arms, sipping on fables. We cut our teeth on plotlines, believing that we are the hero of her tales. The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for story. It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew. It is everything that made me and shaped me and saved me. As a southern writer, I aim only to invite my readers to enter this sacred space. So to all I say, Welcome, welcome home. Life is hard and your soul is weary. Come in, kick off your shoes. You are safe here. Let me tell you a story.—Julie Cantrell, from “Southern Fiction”


Katherine ClarkWhereas 100 years ago, writers had to learn to embrace the differences of the South, nowadays the tendency can be to positively wallow in the eccentricities and grotesqueries of the southern experience, usually of an earlier era. This is what the southern novel needs to save itself from…. This epiphany also involved an awareness that self-conscious southernism is a recipe for cliché and bad writing. I put myself on the path to writing a decent southern novel only when I stopped trying to write a “southern novel” and was simply trying to write an original novel set in the South. This is the main lesson I learned from years of struggling to be a southern writer, and the main pearl of wisdom I have for anyone engaged in the same struggle.—Katherine Clark, from “The Burden of Southern Literature”


Stay tuned for more previews next week. And thanks always for reading! I’ll be posting a schedule of events in a few weeks, sharing dates and places to catch groups of these amazing writers in person for readings.

#Lent2018: Gratitude & “Thankswriting”

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is my third in a Lenten series in which I’m reflecting on Nicole Roccas’s book Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life. If you missed my first two entries, here they are:

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perseverance

As I continue to follow along in Nicole’s Lenten reading guide, this morning I read the sections she suggested for Week 3 of Lent, in which we are moving towards the second Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Elevation of the Cross.

The first section I read this morning was chapter 3, “What is the Present Moment?” Her words in this chapter fit well with the “homework” Father Philip Rogers, our pastor at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, gave us during his homily yesterday—to spend five minutes in complete silence every day during Lent (and maybe to let that practice continue beyond Lent, as the other spiritual practices we have awakened in our lives should also continue). This dovetails nicely into the other books I’m (re)reading during Lent this year: Living Prayer and Meditations on a Theme, both by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. I discovered Met. Bloom’s books many years ago, but I like to revisit them to help re-center myself in prayer and silence—two things that aren’t organic for me, but require a lot of effort. In this chapter, Nicole says:

Why is it so crucial to “be present” in the way St. Theophan and the neptic Fathers admonish? Because the present moment is the only time in which we can encounter the Resurrection and Christ Himself. We cannot meet Him in the past or future; the only time we have is now.

This might seem obvious, and yet, as she points out later in this chapter, we tend to live in the past and the future:

Perhaps the first step of despondency—the first departure from the present moment—is numbing ourselves to care and all the pain it can bring. Counterintuitive though it may seem, fostering regret and anxiety toward past and future are part of that numbing process, because they extract us from the arena of caring and deposit us in the cesspool of rumination, where the mind can manipulate its own reality.

I have experienced this constantly throughout my life—this “cesspool of rumination”—where I let my mind take me to past regrets, to past hurts so that I hold onto them and undo the forgiveness I worked so hard to give at some point, or to anxiety about the future, to the point where I obsess over things as immediate as the success of my literary career or as (possibly) far off as failing health, especially with my family history of Alzheimer’s. So what help does Nicole offer us to counter these tendencies, which lead us down the path of ongoing despondency?

the-real-gift-of-gratitude-robert-holden-quotes-sayings-picturesIn chapter 7, “Stepping Stones Back to the Present,” the section we read this week is about GRATITUDE. She shares the story of a man who struggled with depression and was giving a talk on mental health and faith:

Just before a major depression struck, he would notice that he had stopped giving thanks for ordinary things in life…. A cessation of gratitude was the most consistent forewarning that another storm was on the horizon and he needed to change course.

I have a close friend who always seems to be thankful, even in the midst of her struggles. We talk on the phone frequently, and I’m always impressed with how often she injects thanksgiving into our conversations, reminding me that Christ’s love is with us, especially in our struggles.


So, this morning, I combined Father Phillip’s “homework”—to sit silently for five minutes—with Nicole’s suggestions about giving thanks. As I sat quietly, I interrupted my silence only to name things I was thankful for: Our oldest son’s visit with us from New Orleans this weekend. Almost six months without a drink (I’ll blog about that on Thursday). A new friend I’ve recently made and the joy of that mutually encouraging relationship. A special lunch with our fifteen-year-old Goddaughter and how precious she is and how wonderful our relationship with her is. Some good reviews of my latest book. The loveliness of our home. The growing love in my marriage of almost 48 years.

thanks journalAt the end of this section in Time & Despondency, Nicole offers several “Stepping Stones of Thanksgiving.” I’m not going to list them here, but when she asks in the reading guide, “What is the one way you’d like to try exercising gratitude this week, based on the readings?” my reply is to follow her third stepping stone:  “Thankswriting.” This seems like an obvious choice for a writer, doesn’t it? I will keep a small journal (just found one in a drawer in my office) on my bedside table, and every night I will list one or two items that I am thankful for that day. It lifts my spirits to just think about doing this simple act of being present, of living in the moment, and accessing its power against despondency! Join me?

Young Adult (YA) and New Adult (NA)

A Sharpie sketch I did when I was writing CHERRY BOMB.

A Sharpie sketch I did when I was writing CHERRY BOMB.

Last year when my novel CHERRY BOMB came out, one reviewer on Goodreads opened her review with these words:

This is being marketed as southern literary fiction, and it’s that, certainly. But if that’s not your genre, think of it as gritty YA and read it anyway. The young protagonist, Mare, is struggling with the effects of years of abuse, first in a religious cult, and then in a foster home. She runs away, takes to the streets, and finds the voice that her abusers had taken from her in spray paint and blank walls.

Mare closeup


Gritty YA. I actually queried several agents who represent Young Adult fiction a few years ago for CHERRY BOMB, but I wasn’t completely settled on that market in my mind. YA readers seem to have gotten younger than the 12-18-year-old bracket traditionally thought of as Young Adult readers. There were fairly graphic scenes of sexual abuse and strong adult themes in the book, as well as a strong emphasis on religion and art. But the run-away orphan who throws up graffiti? Definitely a YA protagonist.



This morning I read an article in the balance, “Young Adult and New Adult Book Markets,” by Valerie Peterson that was interesting. Peterson’s research shows that although these books might be aimed at a younger audience, 70% of all YA titles are read by people ages 18-64. So even if CHERRY BOMB had been marketed as YA, hopefully my target audience would still be reading it.  But it was Peterson’s take on a newer genre that caught my attention—the growing NA (New Adult) books. Here’s some of what she has to say about NA:

A relatively new genre of fiction, New Adult emerged as a term in a 2009 contest by St. Martin’s. Filling the gap between Young Adult and Adult Fiction, NA’s target readers are between the ages of 18 and the mid-20s, times when new adults are first feeling independence and finding their place in the world…. New Adult subject matter is adult in theme but geared toward readers who (like the books’ protagonists) are encountering adult situations for the first time…. Often the setting for contemporary New Adult books is a college campus. Like those who read the books, the protagonists are away from home and the strictures of parents for the first time. They are exploring, testing their values, losing and trying on boundaries and stretching to discover themselves, their limits.

"Weeping" icon of Saint Mary of Egypt, similar to the one Mare encountered at the monastery.

“Weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt, similar to the one Mare encountered at the monastery.

So much of this is true of CHERRY BOMB and its protagonist, Mare. Mare is a 12-year-old runaway at the beginning of the book, a 16-year-old living on the streets and throwing up graffiti and then attending the Southern College of Art and Design in the middle of the book, and 21 in the final chapter. There are sections that are rich with spiritual imagery and religious experiences—like when Mare goes to a monastery to learn to paint icons and encounters a miraculous weeping icon—and also scenes set in the world of abstract expressionist art. Whenever I give readings at bookstores, conferences, bookclubs, and library events, I take a quick scan of the audience to determine whether I should read scenes where Mare is sexually abused, where she is throwing up graffiti, in the classroom at SCAD, or in the chapel at the monastery. If the audience is older, I tend to read the sections at the monastery. If my listeners are younger, I go for the graffiti and ab ex scenes.

I got into Mare's head a bit by throwing up a CHERRY BOMB tag while writing the novel.

I got into Mare’s head a bit by throwing up a CHERRY BOMB tag while writing the novel.


All of that to say that a new friend (Claire Fullerton, a Memphis native whose third book, MOURNING DOVE will be released soon) is helping me find my way through the nuances of Instagram and has encouraged me to look at CHERRY BOMB through the lens of YA readers. As soon as I tagged a recent post with #graffiti #YA #NA #YoungAdult I got a flurry of “likes” and new followers. Hopefully CHERRY BOMB will gain a bunch of new readers as a result! The people I know personally who have given it 5 STAR reviews on Amazon or Goodreads are between the ages of 36 and 83. Maybe I’ll start hearing from the younger crowd soon!

Oh, and speaking of Instagram, please drop in and follow me. I’m having fun checking out everyone’s photographs and making new friends over there, and I promise to follow you back! #writersofinstagram #authorsofinstagram #CherryBomb #graffiti #YA #NA

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 2

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERLast week I shared some sneak previews from a new anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, coming from University Press of Mississippi in May. Today I’ll continue with quotes from a few more authors who contributed essays to the collection. Enjoy!


Harrison Scott KeyI mean, who did I think I was? Who would want to read about me? The only real answer I could come up with: my mother. The other answer: this is a dumb question. Because everybody’s boring, and everybody’s interesting…. The better question: how do I map the expressionist strangeness of my inner life in a way that invites others to sit in the cockpit of my soul and soar through the atmosphere of me, which is the only me I’ve ever been and the only unique thing I possess anyway?—Harrison Scott Key, from “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir: Then and Now”

Cassandra KingSo I write for all the usual reasons—can’t do anything but; have an over-active imagination; was raised in the South around great storytellers; have always loved books and reading; and am happier when writing than anything else in the world. But there’s another reason that’s become pretty obvious to me. Writing is in my blood. Somehow, of all the descendants of Josiah King, I was the one to inherit the genetic disposition, a great-granddaughter that he barely knew. I’m certainly a dreamer, and admit to being a bit of a fool. No other occupation but writing holds any interest for me. Grandpa King, it seems that a part of you is still alive in me.—Cassandra King, from “The Ghost of Josiah King”

Corey Mesler


Writing is a very real lifeline for me. I am standing on the island and I am saved by a line I throw out to myself. It might be grandiose to say that writing saved my life—certainly it did not in the dramatic fashion of poor Janet Frame, who was about to be lobotomized before her work was discovered—but without my little literary envois my life would be a diminished thing.—Corey Mesler, from “The Agoraphobic Writer”

Patti Callahan Henry

I create a world and then toss into that world a conundrum. Then I watch as I try to write my way out of it. I can ask: If I set this character up for a fall, what will they do? What will occur to save or harm them? I ask a question and then take it to the far extreme, watch it unfold into the future. Embedded within the inquiry, ‘What happens next?’ I believe there exists a hidden seed of hope, because no matter where we are (or where our character is), or how bad it is, something always happens next. This isn’t merely a question to spur the writing forward, but to enliven our days, to allow hope to infuse some of the darker times.—Patti Callahan Henry, from “What Happens Next”

Click on each author’s name to go to his or her web site and learn more about their books, which I hope you will buy and read! They are all amazing writers. And come back next week for more sneak previews!

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