It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Southern Writers on Writing panel at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

Southern Writers on Writing panel at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

As my 2018 book tour begins to wind down, I’m happily looking forward to events with all four of my books in the coming months. Marketing books is a marathon, not a sprint, although those first weeks and months coming out of the gate are important. This year’s release, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018), has been so much fun to promote. I’ve been able to meet up with 22 of the 26 contributing authors at fourteen events in five states since May, including this past weekend’s panel at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, where I was joined by M. O. “Neal” Walsh, Nicole Seitz, Joe Formichella, and Suzanne Hudson.

 

Panel for CHERRY BOMB, with three other women authors at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

Panel for CHERRY BOMB, with three other women authors at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

I was also on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB, (on sale on Kindle for $4.99 right now!) with three other authors, talking about “Women’s Journeys of Self Discovery in Fiction.”

Yes, the three books I published in 2017 have still got legs, and I’m looking forward to promoting them into 2019. Here’s what’s coming up:

 

Save the Date CanvaNovember 13 (TOMORROW!) at 9 a.m. I’ll be speaking at the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Memphis Caregiver Conference in Bartlett, Tennessee:

“A Caregiver’s Journey: The Garden in Our Backyard”

My topic is “Dealing With Disease and Relationships,” and I’ll be reading from the first book I published, TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S (January 2017) and offering copies at a discount to caregivers. This book was published almost two years ago, and it’s a mixed blessing that it continues to be relevant, as Alzheimer’s disease is the only cause of death among the top ten in America that cannot be prevented, cured, or slowed. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and more than fifteen million people provide care to people with dementia. I’m hoping to bring some encouragement—and yes, even some humor—to some of those caregivers here in the Memphis area tomorrow.

 

December 18, at 5 p.m.—I’ll be back at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, where my novel CHERRY BOMB (Dogwood Press, August 2017) launched sixteen months ago. This time I’ll be joining a few other Dogwood Press authors for an event celebrating the press. Watch for more details soon!

 

January 17, 2019—I’m headed to Jefferson, Texas, for another Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend. This time I’m moderating my fifteenth panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, and I’ll be joined by 8-10 contributors!

 

March 1-3, 2019—I’ve been invited to speak at a women’s retreat at The Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi. Alison Buehler, an author and speaker who lives at the Homestead and directs retreats and other events there, came up with the idea to have a retreat around the themes in the first anthology I edited, A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (Mercer University Press, March 2017). Several contributors to the book will be joining me to also speak at the weekend retreat: Nina Gaby, Kathy Rhodes, Ellen Morris Prewitt, and Jennifer Horne. Promotional materials and more details will be out after Christmas, but mark your calendars if you’re interested in this retreat!

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Purple Angels, Disrupt Dementia, and Lewy Body Soldier

I recently shared a link to a wonderful site I had discovered, AlzAuthors.Org. It features over 150 authors writing about Alzheimer’s. A recent post at the site introduces Karen Severson, M.D. and her book—“Look, I Shrunk Grandma: A Psychiatrist’s Guide to Nursing Homes, Dementia, and End of Life.” Severson had several motivations for writing the book:

Karen Severson banner

 

She wanted to help families of loved ones with dementia understand the disease and the reasons for the treatment approaches in place in the nursing homes where their loved ones were residents. There is often tension between the residents’ families and the nursing home employees, and Severson’s book addresses those issues.

But she had another reason for writing the book:

My other motivation for writing Look, I Shrunk Grandma, a Psychiatrist’s Guide to Nursing Homes, Dementia and End of Life came from seeing persons with dementia suffering. Many families cling to a natural denial that dementia is terminal. As a result, they ask for medical procedures that could prolong life, but may also inadvertently cause more suffering. When stopping numerous interventions were suggested, we have been accused of being heartless or cruel, allowing someone to die. With the experience from my mother’s death, I wanted to do what I could to decrease end-of-life suffering.

Just a few days before this new book was introduced on the AlzAuthors.Org site, I read a special report in the July/August AARP Bulletin: “Our Goal: Disrupt Dementia.” One of several articles within the feature is Thomas K. Grose’s piece The Pursuit of A Cure for Dementia.” Grose explains about the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF), a London investment fund that was set up in October of 2015 to “provide money to small companies seeking to discover novel therapies to stop or slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia….” There’s lots of good information in this special report—well worth the read.

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Norman McNamara, the "Lewy Body Soldier"

Norman McNamara, the “Lewy Body Soldier”

And speaking of the UK, the third piece of my post today is about a British man who wrote a book after his diagnosis with Lewy Body Disease.  Norman McNamara started the organization known as the Purple Angel Dementia Campaign after he was diagnosed with a form of dementia at age 50. I’m reading his book, The Lewy Body Soldier, which is imagesan amazing achievement given he wrote it while facing the disease. If you’re a regular reader (or writer) of literary fiction or professional narrative nonfiction, don’t expect this book to knock your socks off with perfect prose. In fact, it’s full of “errors,” that are, for me, easy to forgive, because the person who wrote it wasn’t trying to win any literary awards. He wrote it to tell an urgent, universal, and important story. Here’s a video interview with McNamara and his wife and caregiver. (His verbal skills are pretty amazing, considering this was 8 years after his initial diagnosis.)

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Tangles and Plaques coverMy mother died from Alzheimer’s two years ago, and I wrote about her struggles with the disease and my relationship with her during the final decade of her life in my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. And her mother died from Alzheimer’s. I was familiar with this type of dementia, but I had never heard of Lewy Body Disease until two friends both were diagnosed with it. One has been in a nursing home for some time now, and the other is at home with 24/7 care from her husband, with part-time help. McNamara talks about some things in his book that I was not aware of before, including the experience of vivid hallucinations and night terrors. The disease, as he points out, isn’t a “one size fits all” type of thing.

Alz & Dem Services logoIf you or anyone you know has a loved one with dementia of any type, please share these links with them. I will be speaking at the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Memphis’s annual conference on November 13, and I will continue to look for ways to learn more about this disease and share my knowledge and experience with others.

 

Save the Date Canva

Miss Tennessee, Miss Mississippi, Swim Suit Competition, and Alzheimer’s

 

Kelle Barfield, owner of Lorelei Books, hosted my reading for Southern Writers on Writing on June 21

Kelle Barfield, owner of Lorelei Books, hosted my reading for Southern Writers on Writing on June 21

After my visit to Vicksburg, Mississippi last week to do a reading and signing for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Lorelei Books, I became more interested in what was going on behind the scenes at the Miss Mississippi Pageant. The pageant takes place in Vicksburg every June, and the preliminary competitions were held during my visit. The bookstore owner, Kelle Barfield, had just hosted an autograph party for several of the contestants earlier in the week. Sorry I missed that! I had read about the decision of the Miss America Pageant to discontinue the swimsuit portion of the pageant, and how the Miss Mississippi Pageant was still including it, so my writer’s curiosity was up. When I got home, I watched the pageant online on Saturday night.

Asya BranchI was delighted that Asya Branch won and is the new Miss Mississippi for 2018. Asya goes to school at my alma mater, Ole Miss, and her platform is to help children of incarcerated parents. Her own father has been in jail for more than half of her life. I was also interested in the fact that she won the swimsuit competition for the second time (she also won it in 2016), and her short interview question during the final part of the pageant was about her thoughts on this part of the competition being done away with. She said she had mixed feelings (I guess so, since she won it twice!) but understood that the pageant wanted to focus more on empowering women. (That’s a paraphrase… wish I had written down an exact quote.)

Christine Williamson, Miss Tennessee 2018

Christine Williamson, Miss Tennessee 2018

Meanwhile back in Tennessee, Memphis native and Ole Miss graduate, Christine Williamson was crowned Miss Tennessee Saturday night at the pageant in Jackson, Tennessee. And guess what? She was also the winner of the swimsuit competition. Her response to hearing that it was done away with for the Miss America Pageant?

It’s bittersweet. I understand we have to eliminate it to get rid of outside perceptions of women being objectified.

She added that she never felt objectified, but that she learned more about fitness and nutrition by participating. As she said in the Commercial Appeal article:

Pageants teach women the importance of physical fitness, having confidence in public speaking and showcasing their talents. In addition, it’s taught them the importance of failing graciously.

Williamson also represents the state as Tennessee’s appointed congressional advocate and serves as a national Alzheimer’s Association ambassador. Of course I love her involvement with this association, as I lost both my mother and my grandmother to this awful disease.

Speaking of which, I just discovered a wonderful web site with posts by over 150 authors who have published books about Alzheimer’s. Check out AlzAuthors.com. I will have a post up there about my memoir Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s in the coming months (watch for a link here when it comes out) and I’m enjoying reading through the posts and have already ordered a couple of books by AlzAuthors. I was especially thrilled to learn that one of my favorite literary fiction novelists, Lisa Wingate (author of Before We Were Yours) wrote her first novel, Tending Roses, about her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s.

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So in September I’ll be cheering for Miss Mississippi and Miss Tennessee to do well in the Miss America Pageant… even though there won’t be a swimsuit competition to give them a leg up. (pun intended) Hopefully their other attributes—like talent and platform—will get them both through to the finals, and maybe one of them will be our new Miss America.

Small Mississippi Towns and the Characters That (Might) Live There!

John Floyd's latest short story collection, THE BARRENS, coming in October!

John Floyd’s latest short story collection, THE BARRENS, coming in October!

Eleven years ago this August I went to the first Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi. It was pivotal for me in several ways—especially meeting Joshilyn Jackson, who inspired me to start a blog (√) and write a novel (√). I also met prolific short story author John Floyd, who critiqued the story I turned in ahead of time, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” It was pretty awful, but he was kind and gentle with my soul in his critique. What I learned from the experience was that I just wasn’t in love with the genre. I liked the length—the average popular short story is 3500 words—but I preferred nonfiction if I was going to write short form. I went on to publish essays in a dozen or more journals and magazines and four anthologies. And then I edited two anthologies. It was so much fun putting together these collections of 20 and 26 essays by other writers.

atwtm_cover_FINAL-e1420661990558For fiction, I preferred novels. I rarely even read short stories, except for Flannery O’Conner. And then two of my friends published collections of short stories. Suzanne Hudson—who got first place in a Penthouse Magazine short story contest when she was young—came out with All the Way to Memphis in April of 2014, which I loved. These stories are southern to their core, border on gothic, and deal with abusive family members and other issues that dive into the human psyche and land in the heart. When I read them a few years ago, I mused—if only for a moment—on whether or not I could write short stories.

Wildflower.jpgThree months later my friend Jennifer Horne, who happens to be the Poet Laureate of Alabama, published a collection of “linked” short stories, Tell the World You’re a Wildflower. Jennifer already had published several volumes of poetry and had edited three anthologies, so this was a new genre for her, too. Jennifer’s stories encompass plastic surgery and white supremacists, family secrets and family trees, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a young writer who describes her work in progress as “the bastard love-child of William Faulkner and Alice Walker.” Like Suzanne’s work, these felt like mini-novels, and I loved them.

So here I am, four years later, trying my hand at writing a collection of linked short stories! FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY was inspired by my visits to libraries in eight small towns in Mississippi (seven of those visits in 2017 and one this year) to speak to the Friends of the Library groups. I spoke to seven groups about my novel CHERRY BOMB, and to one group about my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. These road trips into rural areas and small towns of my home state made an impression on me in ways I wasn’t expecting. I read the histories of each town, took in the landscape, and loved meeting the people, who ultimately inspired the characters in my short story collection, although my stories and the characters are completely fictional.

Aberdeen, Mississippi

Aberdeen, Mississippi

I’ve finished drafting seven of the stories, and I’m up to 34,267 words. And here’s the fun part. I’ve heard lots of writers say that when they are writing, their characters “take on a life of their own” and that they don’t know what they’re going to do next. They talk as if they’re just writing down what they see happening, rather than controlling the plot. I always rolled my eyes when I heard them say things like that. (Queue Twilight Zone music, right?) But guess what? That’s exactly what’s happening as I draft these stories! I did create a rough one-paragraph description of each of the stories before I started writing, but the characters’ lives are, indeed, taking off in all sorts of directions I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never had so much fun writing!

But just because I’m having fun doesn’t mean the stories are funny. They are heavy-hitting, dealing with Alzheimer’s, alcohol, cancer, domestic abuse, adoption, race, homelessness, childhood sexual abuse, and eating disorders. So far. (My final two stories might deal with suicide and/or schizophrenia, and one might even include a kidnapping.) The towns I visited, where the stories are set, include Eupora, West Point, Aberdeen, Starkville, Southaven, Oxford, Senatobia, and Pontotoc. It’s interesting, when I look at a map, that none of the towns are in the Mississippi Delta or the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where I have given readings at bookstores but haven’t visited libraries. That might be something to explore in the future.

I’m off to Pontotoc—in my mind—to finish the story I set there. I can’t wait to see what Robert Earl does next. I’m just trying to keep up!

The Elephant’s Mother’s Nose

memory-test-002Yesterday afternoon I had an interview to decide if I qualify for long-term care insurance. I remember when my mother had this interview, which she failed. She was in her 70s and her dementia was already too obvious. I’m only 66 and hopefully still alert enough to pass. But I was surprised by the depth of the interview.

When the insurance company’s representative called early Monday morning, she told me that I would need to have the following information available for the interview:

Medical records for the past ten years, including:

names, addresses, and phone numbers of all physicians I had seen

all medications, prescription and over-the-counter, including dosages and conditions for which I am taking the medications

which physician prescribed each medication, when it was first prescribed, and whether or not the medications were correcting the problems

any surgeries, physical therapy, or other treatments; names of the diagnoses and outcome of the treatments

any diagnostic tests, i.e. MRI, CAT scans, EKG, EEG, stress tests, etc., and the results

any broken bones, treatment, and results

specifically any cancer (I’m a survivor from 2001), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc.

any family history of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc. BEFORE AGE 65 (Thankfully they didn’t ask about after age 65, since both my mother and my grandmother died from Alzheimer’s, but the onset was in their 70s.)

I spent about an hour and a half before the interview, gathering all of that information from two file drawers full of medical files. Although it was time-consuming, I’m glad to have had a reason to compile this information into one (4-page) document for future reference.

One hour and 15 minutes of the interview was taken up with me verbally giving all of this information to the interviewer, and answering other specific medical questions. And then she asked something that surprised me:

How much time do you spend volunteering?

Volunteering? Does this have something to do with qualifying for long-term care insurance? Suddenly I felt defensive.

Um, I work.

Oh (surprised tone). What do you do?

I’m a self-employed writer. I work from home. I published three books last year, and drove over 9,000 miles to 40 events where I spoke about those books.

About how many hours a week do you spend on this work?

Well, on weeks when I’m not traveling and speaking, I spend about 30 hours a week at the computer, either writing or marketing my books. But then there are weeks when I’m traveling for several days, so I’m not sure how many hours that is.

Okay, so back to volunteering. How many times a month do you volunteer?

Seriously? (I didn’t say that, but I was thinking it.) Well, since I work pretty much full time, my “volunteer work” is mostly spontaneous—taking a meal to someone who is sick or having a baby, visiting with a friend who is house-bound, that sort of thing. But I don’t really think of that as “volunteering.”

Okay. Let’s talk about exercise. How often and how do you exercise?

That one was easier: 3-4 times a week, 20 minutes on the elliptical machine.

The interviewer kept saying “thank you!” after each of my answers, with a tone one might use with a child, which was kind of annoying, but I pressed on.

CHT177480Finally, after one hour and 15 minutes of detailed questions, she got to the “memory” part of the interview. Of course. When my brain was tired. But thankfully it was really easy and only took about 15 minutes. First she asked me simple questions like today’s date, where I live, my name, address, date of birth, etc. Next she said a series of 4, 5 and then 6 one-digit numbers and had me repeat them back to her. She had me do a series of simple math equations. And then the fun part. (She was dealing with a writer, right?) She called out ten words, one at a time, and asked me to repeat the word and use it in a sentence. She did this twice, for some reason. And then a few minutes later, after the math quiz, she asked me to repeat as many of those words as I could remember. I remembered them all. In fact, I think I can remember them now: silver, orange, elephant, piano, mother, paper, glass, nose, captain, rope. Interesting selection of words, right? I think it would have been more fun if she had asked me to use them all in one sentence. Like this:

The elephant’s mother’s nose was decorated with silver and orange ropes, and the captain rode on top of the elephant reading a newspaper and drinking a glass of sherry.

So now we wait for the results—hopefully good results—and finalize the financial part of the application. It feels good to do this. Since my mother didn’t qualify for long-term-care insurance, she ran out of money after three years in assisted living and only a couple of years in a nursing home. Thankfully Medicaid kicked in and took care of her final years in nursing home care. Our situation is different, and this feels like the right thing to do. Our financial planner and the company we’re working with are reputable, and if we want to cancel the policy at some point, we get our money back, which is pretty amazing.

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Now if I can just remember where I put my cell phone….

120 Days….

treatment-120-days-badgeI had my last drink four months ago today, on September 8, 2017. (If you missed my post about quitting drinking, it’s here: “0 Meetings in 90 Days.”) Hopefully my brain cells are restoring themselves. Since both my mother and my grandmother died from Alzheimer’s, I’m hoping that my choice to be alcohol-free will help, although my grandmother never drank. Or smoked. And was never overweight. She lived a simple, completely drug-free life, but still died from Alzheimer’s.

So, this week we are signing me up for long-term care insurance. We’ve done our research, with help from our financial planner, and it seems like a good thing to do. Just in case.

A friend just sent me a link to this article in The Atlantic:

“Even Small Amounts of Alcohol Impair Memory,” by Olga Khazan.

Another reason to be glad that I quit drinking altogether, rather than choosing to try to drink moderately.

IMG_1176Meanwhile, my new struggle is to learn how to use the same cognitive process I used to quit drinking in order to change my eating habits. I feel a strong addictive pull towards certain junk foods that I once felt towards alcohol. I understand that this is common for people who quit drinking, but I want to get a handle on it. Fondue chocolate (I just melt it in a mug and eat it with a spoon) and kettle-cooked potato chips (I often eat a whole bag at one sitting) are my main two cravings these days.
Oh, and I’ve almost completely quit drinking Cokes, which I loved almost as much as vodka! But I’ve switched to Diet Coke with Splenda. I know it’s also not so great for me, but it’s a step in the right direction. Except that it has lots of caffeine. But I only drink decaf coffee (usually one cup in the morning) so maybe the caffeine from the Diet Cokes with Splenda (3-4/day) isn’t hurting too much. (When I was still drinking real Cokes, I only drank 1-2 of the tiny ones each day.)

Somehow I’ve got to re-introduce healthy vegetables into my daily diet. I probably only eat vegetables 3-4 times a week, rather than several times a day. Gonna’ work on that in 2018. I don’t have an actual “New Year’s resolution,” but the beginning of a new year does feel like a good time to set goals. For me, getting a handle on compulsive eating is #1, and starting a new book is #2. Since I’ve already published 3 books (with a 4th coming in May), writing another book definitely seems easier than quitting the chocolate and chips, but we’ll see how it goes.

What are your goals (personal? professional?) for 2018?

Blogger’s Block

We Can Do It! Rosie the RiveterUgh. I’ve been trying to think of something to blog about for several days… After posting faithfully three times a week for ten years (it was ten years in August) I’ve been struggling with my blog for several months now. Sure, I’m busy with a book tour and finishing up a fourth book project and all that, but writing—the thing I tell myself I live for—just isn’t coming easily these days. (Not only for the blog, but for my next project, which I can’t settle on yet.)

What am I doing instead? Binge-watching “Alias Grace” on Netflix (and wishing I could write like Margaret Atwood, who probably never watches TV), taking my computer to the Apple Store to get some wisdom from the folks at the Genius Bar (actually had a very productive session today), taking book festival posters to Michaels for framing (great Veteran’s day sale on custom framing), and binge-eating mango smoothies, my latest food obsession. So, this afternoon I started thinking about what subjects I used to write about the most on this blog. Here’s what I came up with:

My mother. Who died in May of 2016. I wrote over 60 blog posts about our relationship and her journey with Alzheimer’s between 2007 and 2016, most of which ended up as essays in my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.

Iconography and spirituality/religion. I quit writing icons in 2012, but sometimes I still write blog posts about iconography, especially weeping icons and other aspects of this liturgical art that play a big part in my novel Cherry Bomb. So, I’ll probably still do some posts about icons in the future, but nothing is really grabbing me right now. And as all authors know, it’s much easier to write about something when one either has issues with it or is extremely excited about. Both of those things have been true about my relationship with God and my Church over the years, but I find myself in a calm and content place with both right now, which doesn’t give much fodder for my pen. You’ll be the first to know when either of them does something else to piss me off or something earth-shatteringly wonderful. (Not that the Virgin birth or Jesus’ rising from the dead weren’t big enough deals… and maybe I need to pay more attention to these events’ eternal wonderment.)

Mental health. Especially about sexual abuse, addiction issues (both food and alcohol), and depression. Instead of blogging about these issues lately, I’m finding myself reading more. I’ve just re-read memoirs by Mary Karr and Carolyn Knapp, and some of Joan Didion’s writing (and did you watch that amazing documentary about her on Netflix? In “The Center Will Not Hold,” Didion said, “Novels are often about things you cannot deal with.” True that.) I think what I’m finding as I read the wisdom of others and watch their talents on the screen is that I don’t have much to say right now that’s very important. I thought about blogging about #MeToo but so much has already been written about it that I don’t see a void to fill. But if you’re looking for something good to read about overcoming life’s adversities (and especially abuse and difficult childhoods) read Meg Jay’s article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “The Secrets of Resilience.” Dr. Jay is a clinical psychologist and has a book coming out on Tuesday: Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience. As I think about my own struggles and the horrific stories that are being shared on the media right now in the #MeToo “movement,” I think Dr. Jay’s words are very wise and timely:

Finally, remember the ways you have been courageous and strong. Too often we remember what has gone wrong in life rather than what we did to survive and thrive. Think back on a time when you were challenged and give yourself credit for how you made it through. You may already be more resilient than you think.

Good words to close with. Maybe next week I’ll have more to say here, although I will be traveling again with my book tour on two days and learning to Skype with a book club in Texas one night. Talking about my writing is so much easier than actually writing. Pray for me.

Pilgrim Interrupted

SusanwMoOlympiaI’m putting together a collection of personal essays with the working title, Pilgrim Interrupted. Many of the essays have been previously published, and as I’ve been going through them again, I’ve pulled out a few representative quotes. I’ll share them here, as teasers for what I hope will become my next book. (I’m querying literary agents for this one.) The essays are grouped into six sections: “Icons, Orthodoxy, and Spirituality,” “Writing, Editing, and Publishing,” “Alzheimer’s, Caregiving, Death, and Dying,” “Family and Adoption,” “Place,” and “Mental Health, Addiction, and Sexual Abuse.”

Thirty essays. Four poems. Numerous icons and other pieces of original art. I hope there’s something here for everyone to reflect on, and that my readers will find some measure of joy or inspiration from the journeys I’ve shared. My pilgrimage—mostly in the “Christ-haunted South”—has definitely been interrupted over the decades of my life, but hopefully the prose, poetry, and art that litter the pathway are of some value.

Here are some samples:

“Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons—themselves a form of life interrupted—is part of my offering to God.”—Susan Cushman, from “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow” (published in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, University of Alabama Press, 2012)

“Sometimes I stop and look at the unfinished images with a melancholy longing. The other day I paused before the icon of Christ, fingering a soft sable brush and scanning the jars of pigments on the nearby shelves. There are eggs in the refrigerator, waiting to be broken for Him. Their yolks, themselves a type of life interrupted, are ready to bind the dry pigments and fill my palette with a range of ochres and siennas for the face of Christ. Everything I need is here, waiting for my touch.”—Susan Cushman, from “Blocked” (published in the Santa Fe Writers Project, literary awards finalist, July 2, 2008)

“Sobriety—it’s about more than not being drunk. It’s clear-eyed brush strokes and poetry that knocks your socks off and page-turning prose. It’s Iris Dement singing, “I choose to take my sorrow straight,” and Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks) turning a personal affront into a hit song with, “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.” It’s Mary Chapin Carpenter singing, “forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.”  But it’s also allowing yourself to be human, and turning that broken humanity into something redemptive with every stroke of your pen or brush or keyboard.”—Susan Cushman, from “Blocked” (published in the Santa Fe Writers Project, literary awards finalist, July 2, 2008)

“The distinctive chug chug chug of the wine filling the glass. It’s not really a cork—it’s a rubber wine stopper (from Rabbit) and its phallic shape and texture is tempting. I place it in my mouth and suck the last drops of wine from its surface as I slowly pull it away and push it back into the bottle. The first swallow is always the best, bringing instant gratification, holding promises of relief, of edges softening, jaws relaxing, mind slowing down, dark clouds abating. And sometimes it makes good on those promises, but the relief is only temporary.”—Susan Cushman, from “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day- Search for Everything,” published in The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul (Rivers Edge Media, 2015)

“After binging all day on chips and grilled cheese and sausage biscuit and wine, the self-hatred drives me to my knees once again. But not in prayer. My reflection in the bottom of the toilet bowl—and a fetid memory long ago encoded in my frontal lobe—are enough to trigger my seasoned gag reflex. This ritual takes less than a minute. I puke up most of what I’ve eaten in the past couple of hours. It brings relief, but not without more self-loathing. I cannot, as James Baldwin urged, “vomit the anguish up.”—Susan Cushman, from “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day- Search for Everything,” published in The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul (Rivers Edge Media, 2015)

“It was surreal— like an invasion of the profane into the sacred— and it continued for about forty-five minutes. They would enter to the right of us, in their khaki shorts, fanny packs, and white Keds and cameras (which weren’t allowed inside the cave) and move slowly along the wall where Saint John had once sat, dictating to his scribe, Prochorus. The tour guide alternately pointed to the hole in the wall where the disciple pulled himself up after sitting for hours on end, and the crack in the ceiling where he heard the voice of God. Their mouths formed large, silent “O”s as they crept along, nodding at one another. Then the guide would wave the tourists through the tiny chapel, and they would walk in front of us as they exited.”—from “Pilgrim Interrupted” by Susan Cushman

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.

Magical Time in South Carolina

Susan Pat Conroy center signOur visit to Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, this past Wednesday-Sunday was nothing short of magical. In five days we ate meals at five amazing restaurants (and dinner at Cassandra Kings home in Beaufort Saturday night); did a walking tour of historic Charleston with Bill’s friend from high school who has lived in Charleston for over forty years; Bill gave two medical lectures; I had two book signings at terrific independent bookstores, Buxton Books in Charleston and Nevermore Books in Beaufort; we visited the Pat Conroy Literary Center (in Beaufort) and met Executive Director Jonathan Haupt; and I had the opportunity to meet several authors and a literary agent I admire greatly.

At Nevermore Books in Beaufort, I was joined for a reading and signing of A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be by contributors Cassandra King, Susan Marquez, and NancyKay Wessman. Owner Lorrie Anderson was a fabulous hostess!

Cassandra Susan Susan NK

My favorite restaurant was Fulton Five, in downtown Charleston. It has won the “Most Romantic Restaurant” award 17 years in a row, and the atmosphere, service, and food were amazing. We were the guests of Dan and Ilene Lackland. Dan invited Bill to Charleston to give two lectures at the Medical University of South Carolina, and they were delightful hosts.

oysters at AmenOutdoor dining on the front porch at Cru Café and the patio at Blossom, both also dowtown Charleston, were both wonderful. At Cru we dined with Bill’s high school friends, Bill and Sally Wallace. At Blossom we were joined by Julien and Polly Buxton, owners of Buxton Books in Charleston.

Lunch at Amen Street (just Bill and I) was another favorite outing, with She Crab Soup and East Coast Oysters on the Halfshell. Breakfast Saturday morning with our friend (from Memphis) Julia Alissandratos was at Café Framboise, a short walk from Julia’s house near downtown Charleston. And I had lunch with author friend Nicole Seitz at Napa in Mount Pleasant, where Nicole lives, on Friday.

The (surprising) good news is that I only gained ½ pound! Maybe the walking helped.

Meeting John Warley at Nevermore Books in Beaufort

Meeting John Warley at Nevermore Books in Beaufort

Among the authors I met in Beaufort was John Warley, who wrote A Southern Girl, which I read last year, and loved. John and his wife adopted a daughter from South Korea, and the book is about some of the events circling around the social milieu in Charleston. Wonderful book and a delightful man. I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

0cc6d8_6728dfa9946a4d518af1d73afe67813dA Southern Girl was published by Story River Books, an imprint of the University of South Carolina Press, which was started by Pat Conroy.

So, why do I say it was “magical”? The trip combined so many of my favorite things in five short days: coastal sunsets, delicious seafood, bookstores, writers, old and new friendships, and several stimulating conversations with people who are very much in tune with their spiritual lives. I came home refreshed and renewed, as though I had been on a retreat. And inspired to get back to work on my next novel (which is in my head but only a few pages are drafted so far).

With my spring book tour winding down this week (17 events in 6 states in 3 months) and only one event scheduled for June/July, my plan is to use those first hot months of summer to stay inside with butt in chair and get a good chunk of this next book written. This is the hard part, but books don’t write themselves while we’re out having fun on tour. Stay tuned….

With Polly Buxton at Buxton Books in Charleston, signing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer's

With Polly Buxton at Buxton Books in Charleston, signing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s AND A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be

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