On this rainy Monday just before Christmas, I’ve got a song on my mind that isn’t exactly a Christmas carol.
Last week I watched a TV special about Karen and Richard Carpenter. I loved their music back in the late sixties and seventies, and was devastated by Karen’s death from anorexia at age 32. As Richard said on the special last week, little was known about eating disorders back then, and by the time Karen went in for treatment, it was too late and she died. I’ve never known what drove her to anorexia—there were only vague references on the show about the stress she was under with her career. But I found myself weeping as I watched her sing “Rainy Days and Mondays,” one of my favorite of their songs. Especially when she sang this verse:
What I’ve got they used to call the blues.
Nothing is really wrong.
Feeling like I don’t belong.
Walking around, some kind of lonely clown,
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.
My mother used to say she was “blue.” I think it was her generation’s term for depression. Or maybe for feelings that could grow into depression or just sit there on the soul like a mild sadness. Sadness as an emotion doesn’t have to become malignant. But sometimes it overpowers us. And for some of us it’s often there. As Karen sings:
What I’ve got has come and gone before.
No need to talk it out,
We know what it’s all about….
Did she? Did she know what it was all about?
I remember a time in my thirties when I wished I had anorexia. Yes. It was becoming prevalent in the news and although I struggled with bulimia and body image distortion and exercise addiction for many years, most of all I wanted to be skinny. And free of my food and body issues. I became severely depressed on and off during that time, and to this day those feelings can overwhelm me at a moment’s notice. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to deal with my emotions better—and my food cravings.
Anorexia is about control. I’ve always had control issues, and since control is pretty much an illusion (how many of us really have control over our lives?) those of us who crave it look for ways to tamp down that craving. Or we look for areas in our out-of-control lives where we can create order. Controlling what we eat is one of the ways that we sometimes seek out. Even as I continue the 1000-1200-calorie diet I’ve been on for three and a half months (and I’ve lost 15 pounds!) I recognize the high I get when I punch my calories into my LoseIt! app on my iPhone and stay under my limit for the day. And the euphoria when the scales register even another half pound loss is greater than the pleasure of a favorite food or drink. Most of the time.
What a journey I’ve been on most of my sixty-four years. I’m thankful for my spiritual life, which helps moderate my tendency towards emotional and behavioral imbalance. I still go over my calorie budget occasionally, and some days I give in to that martini that tips the balance a bit too far. But the good days are becoming more frequent than the bad ones, and for that I am thankful.
Even on rainy days and Mondays.
Memories aren’t always happy. Or mentally healthy. But the ones I’ve been having all weekend as my husband and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary have brought joy and laughter, which is a good thing. When we got married—on June 13, 1970—we were barely 19 and 21 years old. Our families didn’t have money. We were married in a Presbyterian Church and had the reception in the fellowship hall, serving only cake, punch, and mints. Our budget was $500, the amount my father (humorously) offered us to elope and save my mother the stress of putting on a wedding. It’s amazing I passed all my classes that spring, since our wedding invitations were late coming from the printers and I ended up addressing them while studying for final exams. And in typical Effie (my mother) style, Mom had sent me the Jackson phone book, in which she had highlighted all the people she wanted me to invite. 400 invitations. 3.25 GPA. Not bad, huh?
Bill’s grandfather gave us money—I think it was either $100 or $150—for our honeymoon. (He had given us his wife’s engagement ring already—they were married for over 50 years when she died.) Anyway, $150 went a lot farther back in 1970 than it does today! We booked two nights at the Broadwater Beach Hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, but we wanted to stay in Jackson the first night, so Bill got us a room at a Holiday Inn in South Jackson, which would be on the way to the coast the next day.
As fate would have it, a bunch of kids from the University of Arkansas were staying at the same hotel for some event. Our room was right by the swimming pool, where those same kids were partying late into the night. So, on what should have been the most romantic night for newlyweds, we kept hearing a bunch of drunk Razorback fans calling the hogs:
Woooooooooo, Pig ! Sooie!
Woooooooooo, Pig ! Sooie!
Woooooooooo, Pig ! Sooie!
This is what it sounded like. It would have been bad enough for any newlyweds, but especially for us. Bill had just graduated (as Senior Class President) from Ole Miss two weeks earlier, where I finished my freshman year. I guess the only thing that could have been worse would be listening to “Roll, Tide!” all night!
The next day we headed down to the Broadwater Beach Hotel, which had received significant damage just ten months earlier at the hands of Hurricane Camille. But it had recovered enough to offer an old-beach charm. I always loved their lighted 3-par golf course, which was so much fun to play at night.
Dinner at nearby Mary Mahoney’s Restaurant was a highlight of our two-day honeymoon, offering the romance that was so badly lacking back at the Holiday Inn in South Jackson where the Razorbacks were partying.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast will always hold a special place in our memories, even with the multiple face-lifts it has received over the years, the most devastating, of course, being at the hands of Katrina, ten years ago this August. I’m sure we’ll revisit this place of our early memories again one day soon.
Tomorrow, on June 13, I will have been married to William Cushman for forty-five years. We were married by Rev. Jack Oates and Rev. James Turner at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Jack had been our minister while we were at Ole Miss, where he taught sociology and preached on Sundays at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Mississippi. Jimmy was the youth pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, where I spent many nights at Bible studies and attended many teen retreats on weekends during high school.
My brother, Mike Johnson, was head groomsman (just home from a deployment to the Philippines, wearing his Marine Corps dress blues) and we had eight bridesmaids and eight groomsmen. Well, counting a Matron of Honor (Kathy Moore Kerr), a Maid of Honor (Jan Connors) and a Best Man (Tod Cushman). The bridesmaids ranged in age from 15 to 19. I had just turned 19 three months before the wedding. Most of the groomsmen were respectably in their twenties. (Bill and I were 17 and 19 when we started dating.)
We’re still in touch with many of our wedding attendants, although we only live in the same town with one of them—Troy Mashburn, who is pastor of the church where my husband serves as associate pastor. (Who knew, when these men were pursuing their degrees in business and medicine, and later their secular careers, that they would end up serving together as priests in the Orthodox Church?)
My cup runneth over as I think of the blessings—and the struggles—of these 45 years. We lived the first 18 of them in Jackson and the next 27 in Memphis. We adopted three children, and had at least one of them living at home from 1977-2001 (with a couple of extended boomerang visits since then).
We’ve travelled together to many states including Alaska and Hawaii, and also to Australia, Canada, England, Italy, Germany, Monaco, Greece, the Czech Republic, Austria, Mexico, Bermuda and the Bahamas. What’s left on our “bucket list” for travel? Paris! It didn’t work out to go this year, but we’re hopeful for 2016.
What have we learned during these forty-five years of married life? (This is my blog, so I guess I can only speak for myself. I’m sure Bill would have a lot more to say!) A few reflections:
Love is something you decide to do. It’s not an emotion, although it’s wonderful when the feelings are also there.
Love can’t last without forgiveness. We are fallen human beings and we are going to hurt each other. But forgiveness can enable us to heal and move forward.
Trials can either make or break a marriage. When I survived a life-threatening wreck two years ago next month, my husband became the most amazing caregiver anyone could want. I feel back in love with him all over again. During the months that I was essentially house-bound, I waited eagerly for his return from work each day. The best part of my day was when he would bring our supper into my office (where I was sleeping on a hospital bed) and sit in the chair beside me and eat with me and tell me about his day. I felt like we were newlyweds in many ways.
Your spouse can’t always be your best friend. I think women especially need best friends. My best friends aren’t in any way a threat to our marriage. They strengthen it.
A marriage isn’t made up of two halves. It’s two wholes. Each person in a marriage needs room to become the complete person we’re meant to be. Only then can we bring our whole selves to the relationship. I think this is especially important for wives who traditionally have seen their role as somehow “completing” their husband and being completed by him.
When I started writing this post I thought it would just be a paragraph or two and then I’d include a lot of photos from our wedding. Guess I’m just in a reflective mood. And happy and thankful to have shared 70% of my life with this wonderful man.
I just read an excellent book, Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future, by Elizabeth Esther. This isn’t going to be a complete book review, but I’d like to make a few comments about why this is such an important book.
First I’d like to address the word, “cult.” Years ago, when I was part of a start-up religious group which took my husband and me on a seventeen-year journey (1970-1987) from Jesus-freak hippies to the Eastern Orthodox Church, we studied cults. Mostly Christian cults. The definition we accepted was something like this:
A religious group or organization which calls itself Christian but does not hold to the major tenets of the Christian faith, especially a triune God and salvation by faith.
That’s just from my memory of our exploration back in the 1970s. And by that definition, we assured ourselves we were not a cult. But I would return to that definition many times in the coming decades as I looked back at those formative years and began to believe that we were a cult.
Some dictionary definitions confirm this in my mind:
a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous
When I would say that I had been part of a cult for many years, some people who had been on the same journey with me would disagree, pointing out that we never left the true religious definition of a Christian group. And that is true. It wasn’t our beliefs that caused our sickness. It was our behavior.
Elizabeth Esther says this about the group she was raised in:
What I remember most are the increasingly strict rules and the insular, fundamentalist traditions we developed…. Women were required to dress very modestly and behave within strict gender roles. Everything, from how we ordered our daily schedules to our tone of voice, was monitored….
That is why, when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts, and choices that identifies a cult.
I cried as I read Elizabeth’s descriptions of the tyranny under which she lived for so many years. The seizing of people’s trust, thoughts, and choices. And although her situation was stricter and more oppressive than mine, there were many similarities, if not the specifics, the general issue of emotional control. And control over every aspect of our lives.
At one point all the women in our group were required to have grocery-shopping partners, so that we wouldn’t be tempted by the world when we went out shopping. We would always have someone to check us. I was often “in trouble” with the group for my free spirit and behavior. I was called out for the way I dressed, for acting independently of my husband, and at one point I was criticized for hiring a maid to help me with housekeeping, an action which was termed “snobby” and “elitist.” I was the first parent to send a child to 4-year-old preschool, which was met with harsh criticism.
Although our group did send our children to a public school, evidently it was considered unnecessary and harmful to send them before age 5. A wise kindergarten teacher called me in for a meeting one day about problems one of my children was having, and she encouraged me to let this child make some friends outside of our church group. She said we were so insular that the children being raised in the group treated each other like siblings—and in my child’s case there was bullying because of too much familiarity.
I’m not going to give more specifics from my own experience or from Elizabeth Esther’s book here. But if you have concerns that you are now or have ever been part of a cult, please read her book. And—spoiler alert—I hope you will find encouragement, as I did, that after she left the cult, she didn’t leave God. She and her family became Catholic. She still loves God, even after everything she suffered as a child and young adult in The Assembly.
Me? Today I still believe. I’ve had some dark years, and even recently some dark weeks and days. But I’m thankful for the ways that God seems to continue to seek me out. Like He did last Friday during one of the Holy Friday services at St. John Orthodox Church. When the choir led us in the hauntingly beautiful chant, “The dead shall arise!”something in my soul shifted. I found myself weeping as I sang along during this service of Lamentations for Christ’s crucifixion, death, burial and the beginning of a hope for His resurrection… and mine. I was standing next to one of my Goddaughters, and I turned to her and said, “I believe this is real.” And she knew what I meant. It wasn’t just an emotional response to the music, but it was an emotional response to the music. One thing I love about the Orthodox faith is the way it embraces all our senses—smell, sight, sound, touch… and yes, even our emotions.
Am I thankful for my journey to Orthodoxy? No. If I had it to do over again, I would RUN away as fast as I could from the cult I gave those seventeen years to. The cult I raised my children in. But it was my journey, and through it—maybe in spite of it—Jesus still chased after me. And that’s just one more thing I love/hate about living in the Christ-haunted South.
This is not a book review. That wouldn’t fit my “Mental Health Monday” theme, now would it? And yet I just spent a couple of hours finishing a wonderful novel (yes—reading in the middle of the day since it’s too hot to do anything else) and the author’s story is what’s on my mind today. Keep reading for my segue into mental health.
In January of 2011 I had the pleasure of meeting Jeanette Walls. I had just read her best-selling memoir, The Glass Castle, and was so happy to be able to attend her reading at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. (I blogged about the event here: “Push and Pray.”)
Walls’ books are all well written, but it’s her own story and how she has responded to adversity—especially to neglect and abandonment by her extremely dysfunctional parents—that keeps me reading and taking inspiration from her work. On the back cover of her latest novel, The Silver Star, (which I just finished reading a few minutes ago) are these words:
Jeannette Walls has written a deeply moving novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love each other and the world, despite its flaws and injustices.
Although The Silver Star is a work of fiction, you can hear Walls’s own voice in the narrator, Bean, the younger of the two sisters at the heart of the novel. I just went back and read a few pages from The Glass Castle, and it’s amazing how similar their voices are. But even if Walls and her siblings didn’t experience the same injustices that Bean and Liz experience in the novel, you know she’s writing from having lived through similar things. More importantly, you sense that, like Bean and Liz, she has also learned to forgive and to love the broken people in her stories, and in her world. Her writing has no trace of anger, bitterness or resentment, which is pretty amazing to me.
That’s why my response to this novel fits here in the Mental Health Monday category. Anything that teaches us how to love each other and this flawed, messed up world is a terrific mental health tool. Thanks for sharing it with us, Jeanette.
Wondering about the picture of the little girl with the emu? You’ll have to read the book!
Unlike today, it wasn’t Friday the 13th. In 1970, June 13 fell on a Saturday.
“The Long and Winding Road” became the Beatles’ last number one hit, and it remained number one for two weeks. Their “Let It Be” album also hit the top of the charts that day, and held the post for four weeks.
Why do I mention this today? My husband is a HUGE Beatles fan. We went to hear Sir Paul in Memphis last year.
And of course we WERE Paul and Linda at this party back in the ’80s.
The World Cup was being played in Mexico.
And Bill Cushman and Susan Johnson were married at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Bill was 21. I was 19.
My bridesmaids were ages 15-19. It felt somewhat like we were playing dress-up. I wore a hat (a nod to the garden wedding I wanted) and my bridesmaids wore dotted Swiss bell-bottom pants suits and carried little white baskets of daisies—my favorite flower at the time.
My sweet husband always brings me flowers.
And tonight we’ll enjoy our favorite meal at Ruth’s Chris. And talk about anniversaries past:
1980—Tenth—Amelia Island, Florida
1995—Twenty-fifth—Estes Park, Colorado
2005—Thirty-fifth—San Francisco (where this cartoon was done)
It’s definitely been a long and winding road, but one I’m so glad we’re still on together. Next year? I’m thinking Paris for our 45th.
And for Bill: Grow old along with me. God bless our love. (words by John Lennon. Sung by Mary Chapin Carpenter. perfect.)
During my wonderful “birthday weekend” in Little Rock, one of my favorite outings was my visit to the Little Rock library’s annual book sale. I went with my friend, Daphne, and her 16-year-old son, Simon. As we entered the bowels of the building, we split up and explored the various shelves and tables. Having recently purchased about 6 books at Sundog Books in Seaside, Florida, I really wasn’t planning on buying anything. Right.
But I did, indeed, find treasures—four books for a grand total of $3.50. And all four of them I could “justify” as legitimate research for my current work-in-progress, The Secret Book Club. Well, at least three of them. Especially this wonderful little volume of interviews with women writers, Women Writers Talking, edited by Janet Todd. My joy at finding this book (for 50 cents) was that two of the women interviewed are Erica Jong and Marilyn French—both authors whose books are chosen by the women in the 1970s book club that I’m creating.
I’m about half way through reading French’s novel, The Women’s Room, so I read her interview first. Several things caught my interest. First of all, one of the strengths of The Women’s Room, in my opinion, is how she reveals the universality of women’s feelings about the social mores of the 1950s,’60s and ’70s. In the interview she gave with Janet Todd, she explains why that was so important:
We live in a culture in which emotion is really looked down on…. If a work of art deals with human emotion as we feel it… it’s going to be called sentimental…. I have a serious respect for emotion.
Talking about her novel, The Women’s Room, French said:
I do think emotion is more accessible to women than men. They’re more aware of it. When men start to feel something, they immediately turn on the TV set and watch a ball game, go out and argue at a political meeting, get rid of their emotions there so they don’t have to be aware they have them. I don’t think men are less emotional than women. I think they’re simply less aware of their emotion, and, when it does come out, it comes out in a very childish way—fourteen-year-old temper tantrums, or five-year-old jealousies. I think women are terribly emotional. Emotion is as much a part of one’s self as mind or body.
Amen. One of my struggles with the Orthodox faith which I converted to in the 1980s is the Church’s approach to emotion. And passion. The Church fathers encourage dispassion, and tend to have a low regard for emotions. And while I won’t go as far as French is saying that “the men of our age are all so hollow and mechanical, emotional zombies,” I do share her frustration with their inaccessibility at times.
French was criticized for being too polemical, and also for overuse of extraneous details, which caused her characters to become exemplars rather than living people. She refuted both criticisms in the interview, and I love both responses:
To the first she replied,
I don’t think the detail is ever extraneous…. I think that is how you create the texture of the day, a life, or an event. I don’t think you do it by describing it in large historical terms. It seems to me that is the very technique of poetry.
Create the texture of the day. Virginia Woolf immediately comes to mind. And Michael Cunningham. And in a different way, Pat Conroy. My favorite writers are masters at creating texture.
To the second criticism, about being too polemic, she replied:
When you’re working against a current, against the very basic assumptions of the culture, if you don’t get polemical, if you don’t say what you have to say, no one is going to hear you.
I feel my courage rising as I read these words and continue reading French’s iconic novel. I’ll share one more excerpt from the interview—one that surprised me:
The one writer who means more to me than any other writer—and always has from the very first time I ever wrote a book a lot of years ago—was Dostoevsky. I recently reread The Brothers Karamazov and found he was writing on the other side of the same question I’m writing about. He’s talking about patriarchy, he’s talking about what does God mean and if a thing called God exists, why. And that huge district attorney’s summing-up of the case against Mitya is essentially a defense of a primal being which is masculine, narrow-minded, insists on certain sexual and moral codes, and so forth. I never though of that as polemical.
Marilyn French and Dostoevsky—two sides to the same question. Fascinating.
So, as Daphne, Simon and I returned home from the library with our treasures, we spread them out on the coffee table and discussed our choices. Simon chose some wonderful classics from Shakespeare and some excellent volumes of poetry. Daphne scooped up some beautiful picture books for her nieces and nephews. In addition to the volume of interviews with women writers, I came away with Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull (complete with beautiful black and white photographic images), I’m OK—You’re OK (Thomas Harris’ guide to transactional analysis), and Madeleine L’Engle’s 1992 novel, Certain Women. Daphne asked us to describe our experience when we walked into the basement of the library and saw all those books. (A typical Daphne question, God love her.) What were we thinking or feeling?
Simon: I’m gonna get some books.
Susan: It’s musty down here. I wonder if there’s mold on the books. How long can I stay down here? (I’m claustrophobic and a bit OCD.) But then I got lost in the treasures and forgot my fears.
What I would have been thinking, had I already read Marilyn French’s interview, was how many hundreds of writers labored endlessly to create those books, and especially about the brilliance of the ones who knew how to create the texture of a day. A life. An event.
So, I’m doing research for a new project and I’d love to have your help. I’ve started a list of popular books published in the 1970s. I’m after books that had social/cultural significance. Fiction or nonfiction. Here’s my list so far:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelous (1971)
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)
The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (1973)
Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber (1973)
Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner (1975)
The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (1976)
The Women’s Room by Marilyn French (1977)
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (1978)
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron (1979)
The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)