The Afternoon of Life

irene-carr-blog-post21

 

In Monday’s post I wrote about three seasons of life as I saw them in Petula Clark’s song, “Fill the World With Love,”—the morning, noon, and evening. Yesterday I was talking about this with a friend (who is in her eighties) over coffee at her kitchen table and I said, “You know, I think I may be in the afternoon of my life. Surely I am past the noontime and not yet to the evening.” She agreed and encouraged me that the afternoon of our life holds much that is wonderful.

At home later in the day I found an email from her with a quote from Jung, so I Googled the topic and found this article which reflects on Jung’s wisdom about this season, “Enjoying the Afternoon of Life: Jung on Aging.” There is much wisdom in this article, but I especially like this part:

Jung called the elder years—those from c. age 56 to c. 83—the “afternoon of life,” using the analogy of the passage of the Sun through the sky from morning to night. Youth was “morning,” noon corresponded to mid-life, and night was old age, while the sixth and seventh decades see life energy wane, much as the Sun’s warmth declines as it sinks lower in the sky. Just as we need the full cycle of the Sun to support life, so we are meant to live out the full cycle of human existence, and Jung recognized this. More than just living, Jung urged us to enjoy the “afternoon” of life….

So how are we to enjoy these years, where so many of us “Baby Boomers” find ourselves? I see many people trying to stay young—those with money chasing the elusive fountain of youth with personal trainers, expansive wardrobes, makeup routines (and plastic surgery), and behavior which denies aging. While I want to remain active, I don’t want to compete with younger generations. My body won’t let me, and I want to be content, to actually enjoy the afternoon of my life. But the article at the Jungian site describes a lifestyle I’m not ready to completely embrace:

The interval between age 60 and age 80 is the time most people retire from full-time participation in the work world. Generally in this interval children have grown up, gone off to college and set up their own families. This means there is more leisure, fewer family demands, and minimal restrictions in daily life due to the demands of work. Ambitions and desires tend to decrease, and oldsters often feel relief as they “downsize” into smaller homes, condos or collective living arrangements. There may be relief also in the realization of no longer having to keep up with new technologies.

Since I never had a “career” (I was a stay-at-home mom most of my life, other than running an aerobic dance business and doing some freelance writing) I’m not “retiring” at age 65…. I just had two books published and have two more in the works. I’m just getting started! And yet, I’m doing these things without the restraints of a mother with children still at home, and yes, with more leisure. I can choose what to do with my time, which is a great gift for which I try to remember to thank God daily.
I guess my main “complaint” in the afternoon of my life is the limitations placed on me by my body—although those limitations are mostly my own fault for not taking better care of it. The weight gain, the daily aches and pains (many from the car wreck three years ago), the sagging chin and drooping eyelids, all scream at me and make me yearn for my youth. But do I really want it back, with all its anxieties? No!

Today I will move forward, learning to enjoy the afternoon of my life. I will even allow myself to take a nap when I need one, or read a book or watch a movie in the middle of the day. But I also realize that my privileged leisure comes with a responsibility to others. No longer my mother’s caregiver, and with my grandchildren 2000 miles away, it’s easy to become lazy about reaching out to others. And to feel guilty that I’m not doing more volunteer work. I talked with my octogenerarian friend about these things yesterday, and she encouraged me that I have a gift to offer—my writing—and that in order to do my art, I will need to go inward and not spread myself too thin doing multiple “good deeds.” I’m still thinking about that, and trying to consider my writing as a full time job. That and taking care of my body. I’m so lazy when it comes to exercise, which will greatly help the aches and pains and weight management.  So how do I move forward?

Jung felt the older person had the opportunity to re-imagine him or herself. Approaching life with a new sense of freedom and individuality, the oldster can improvise more, with less need for perfection and more boldness in affirming his/her uniqueness. No longer feeling the need to honor the past, no longer needing to honor dysfunctional family patterns, the oldster can even dare to be outrageous, to adopt the persona that feels right, rather than conform to what society expects.

I love what this says about no longer needing to “honor dysfunctional family patterns.” I’ve struggled with issues from the past for 65 years. Many of those issues have fueled my writing, but as I begin a new novel (yes!) I want to move on, to leave those issues in the past, and to “dare to be outrageous,” whatever that might mean for this season of my life. Hopefully I can tell a new story (one that has been percolating for only a few weeks) without those shackles. Here’s to the afternoon of life!

Cover for A Second Blooming is, well, BLOOMING!

ASB CoverI am so excited to share the cover for my second book to be published in 2017—A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press, March 2017). This is an anthology I edited, with essays by twenty wonderful authors and a foreword from Anne Lamott. Can’t wait to see it!

Isn’t it beautiful?

 

If it feels like I’m bombing you with book news, just wait until 2017! I can’t help myself… JOY JOY JOY!

And here’s the entry for the Mercer University Press spring/summer catalog. Watch for a listing of events where I’ll be reading/signing next spring. If you can’t make it to an event, please ask your local indie booksellers to order the book for you! (Of course you can get it online if you must.)

ASB MUP catalog page

On the Fourth Day of Christmas…

four-gospels… my true love gave to me: four calling birds! In the Church’s tradition, those birds represent the four gospel writers—the holy apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (seen in these icons). They are “calling” to the world to hear the message of Christ’s incarnation.

So how am I celebrating the fourth day of Christmas? We just got home last night from spending a wonderful Christmas in Denver with two of our kids and all four of our grandchildren. So we are tired but happy. Of course I’m unpacking, doing laundry, and grocery shopping today (and starting back on exercising on the elliptical)… but it’s also a day for Christmas cardsopening more Christmas cards and reading through so many wonderful Christmas letters from friends and family near and far. Sending Christmas cards is one of my favorite traditions, and receiving them is such a treat.

This year I didn’t come up with a creative way to display them, so I just spread them out on our dining room table as they arrived. This morning I captured them in photos, then I took down last year’s photo cards from the bulletin board in the kitchen and replaced them with this year’s. Well, some of them. (They don’t all fit!)

It was fun to group some of them:

children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews

children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cards with original artwork (children and adults)

Cards with original artwork (children and adults)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spiritual/religious cards

spiritual/religious cards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

kitchen bulletin board (with some of our 2016 photo cards) will stay up until next year's cards arrive!

kitchen bulletin board (with some of our 2016 photo cards) will stay up until next year’s cards arrive!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much to everyone who was thoughtful enough to send us a card and/or a Christmas letter this year. I hope you are enjoying this tradition as much as we are!

End of Year Book List

2016 has been an industrial year for me, as I finished querying presses and signed 4 book deals. And now here at the end of the year, those 4 books are in various stages of organization, editing, pre-publication, and marketing. As a writer, I feed my creative spirit on the works of other authors. Often I read more than one book at a time, usually a novel and a nonfiction book. I rarely read short stories (although there’s one excellent collection in this list) or mysteries, but I love poetry, memoir, literary novels, books about spirituality and art, books about courageous and interesting women, and some “self-help” books.

woman-reading

 

I read 38 books in 2016. Fifteen are by authors I know personally. I would love to meet the other 22 one day, although a couple of them are no longer living. Here they are in alphabetical order. If you click on the links, you can read my blog posts on any of them you are interested in.

A Charmed Life by Mary McCarthy

A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

All the Way to Memphis by Suzanne Hudson

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

American Happiness (poetry) by Jacqueline Allen Trimble

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson by Sally Palmer Thomason

Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith

Dispatches From Pluto by Richard Grant

Drifting Too Far From the Shore by Niles Reddick

Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style, and Substance by Tish Jett

Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of  Lent and Easter Edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith

How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch edited by Sherry Amatenstein

Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir by Martha Stettinius

Journeying Through Grief by Kenneth C. Hauck

Lines Were Drawn: Remembering Court-Ordered Integration at a Mississippi High School edited by Teena F. Horn, Alan Huffman, and John Griffin Jones

Woman_reading_a_book_(3588551767)Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Little Wanderer (poetry) by Jennifer Horne

My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg

Not a Place on Any Map by Alexis Paige

Pray and Color by Sybil McBeth

Robert Walker, a novel by Corey Mesler

Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully With Depression by Gillian Marchenko

The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe (winner 2017 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award for Fiction)

The Courage to Grow Old by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton

The Feathered Bone by Julie Cantrell

The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister

The Headmaster’s Darlings by Katherine Clark

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

The Sanctum by Pamela Cable

Waffle House Rules by Joe Formichella

West With the Night by Beryl Markham

Why We Write About Ourselves edited by Mereditih Maran

Books for 2017What’s in the queue for 2017? (also in alphabetical order) Watch for reviews on my blog next year!

*Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Garden in the East by Angela Carlson

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

The Statue and the Fury by Jim Dees

*When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

*On Barnes & Noble’s list of the Top 100 bestselling books of 2016

Happy reading, everyone! I’d love to hear what your favorite books from 2016 were!

Tangles and Plaques COVER ART!!!

Tangles and Plaques cover artWhat a journey this is—working with four publishers at various stages for four different books being published in 2017 and 2018. I’m so thankful for these opportunities, and I’m learning a lot about the business as I continue in the editing phase for some and enter the pre-publishing and marketing phase for others.

Today I received cover art from eLectio Publishing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I love the way the tangled yarn fades from bright colors to almost black and white below the title line… just as memories fade for those suffering this disease. Good job, eLectio!

I appreciate each person involved in this complex process—editors, publishers, graphic designers, and marketing professionals. Although I chose not to work with literary agents (after an unsatisfactory experience) I’m learning my way without them. What that means is that I’m giving up on book deals from the big houses, like Penguin Random House, Harper and Collins, and Simon and Schuster (and big money) but what I’m gaining is more control, and more personal involvement in the process. So, if an agent sees one of my books and wants to take me on, I’ll listen to her pitch. But for now, I’m a happy camper.

 
Watch for more news about Tangles and Plaques in February.

 

Cheers!

The Muralist: Disclaimer and Author’s Note

MuralistMy book pick from Octavia Books while visiting New Orleans last week was B. A. Shapiro’s novel, The Muralist. CLICK HERE to watch the video trailer, which does a great job describing the book. It’s been out for over a year, but somehow I missed it until now. It’s wonderful. It’s the kind of book I’d like to write, and there are similar elements in my novel, Cherry Bomb:

Both books combine fictional and historic characters, scenarios, and dialogue.

Both books focus on the abstract expressionist art movement.

Both books have an element of mystery to them.

This Publisher’s Weekly review has mostly good things to say about The Muralist, but one of its criticisms is something I think lots of authors (myself included) struggle with:

Though compelling, Shapiro’s latest is bogged down in relaying well-researched material about the pre-WWII politics and developments in the art world, ultimately undermining the power of the fictional story.

 

B. A. Shapiro (photo by Lynn Wayne)

B. A. Shapiro (photo by Lynn Wayne)

Shapiro obviously did her homework, and like me, maybe she loves research so much that it’s tempting to leave too much information in the book—information that the author needs to inform the writing, but more than the reader wants to see. In working with an editor in an early revision of my novel, I ended up cutting out one of the three main characters and making her part of the backstory instead. The books works much better this way.

I’ve spent some time researching issues of fictionalizing real people in my book—emailing with two different intellectual rights attorneys for advice. The result of these discussions is that I am not going to change the name of the real person (Elaine de Kooning) in my novel, but I will write a disclaimer in the front of the book, similar to this one, in the front of The Muralist:

The Muralist is a novel in which fictional characters mingle with historical figures. All incidents and dialogue are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Minor alterations in the timing and placement of persons and events were made as the story dictated, the details of which can be found in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. In all other respects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

In her Author’s Note, Shapiro goes into more specifics about the way she fictionalized the historical characters. And then she includes more disclaimer-type statements:

A historical novel is a work of long fiction set in a previous time period. To me, the most important word in this definition is fiction…. This mix of history and invention continues throughout the novel.

This is helpful to me as I consider how to write my disclaimer and Author’s Note for Cherry Bomb. I think I’ll get to work on that soon. But for now, I can’t wait to keep reading The Muralist!

Five Days in NOLA

SuBill Peche

I didn’t blog on Monday because I was having too much fun here in New Orleans. What a great city… especially in mid November when the highs are in the low to mid 70s and the humidity uncharacteristically low. I’m here with my husband, who is speaking at the American Heart Association’s 2016 Scientific Sessions. This is a huge meeting—Scientific Sessions attracts nearly 18,000 professional attendees, with a global presence from more than 100 countries. In addition, 2 million medical professionals participate virtually in lectures and discussions about basic, translational, clinical and population science. Bill has spoken twice during the five-day meeting. But he has found time to join me on an amazing culinary pilgrimage.

Bill, Tom, Ellen and me at Mariza

Bill, Tom, Ellen and me at Mariza

Friday night when we arrived we went to visit our friends Tom and Ellen Prewitt at their Bywater apartment in the Rice Mill Lofts for drinks on the rooftop. Then we went downstairs to Mariza – a wonderful Italian restaurant on the ground floor of their building. Fabulous atmosphere and food, and great to be with our Memphis-NOLA friends. (Tom and Ellen live around the corner from us in Memphis when they’re not at their NOLA location.)

Commanders groupCommander’s Palace is my favorite restaurant/experience in NOLA, hands down. We went for jazz brunch on Saturday with our son, Jonathan, and two of his (and our) friends, Nicole Marquez and Joe Gravier. Commander’s never fails to offer the best service, atmosphere, cocktails, and food. It didn’t hurt that we got a table on the patio and it was 72 degrees and sunny! Nicole was able to get the jazz group to play about six requests—she has that affect on people! Saturday night we ventured to Patois with Dr. Larry Fine, Bill’s friend from Washington, D.C., also in town for the AHA meeting. Another wonderful place, great atmosphere and food!

 

Galatoire’s was also great fun—on Sunday night, again with Jon. First he joined us at our hotel to watch the Saints vs. Broncos game, while Bill worked on his AHA presentations on his laptop. We cheered for the Saints since we were in town with our NOLA son, but when the Broncos won, we knew our Denver kids were celebrating. Galatoire’s was really our only visit to the French Quarter this trip, and Bourbon Street was hopping. The Saints fans didn’t seem to let their loss keep them from having a good time!

 

with Emma at Octavia Books

with Emma at Octavia Books

On Monday I had a great visit with my friend Emma Connolly, who moved to NOLA from Memphis a couple of years ago to open a shop, Uptown Needle and CraftWorks, on Magazine Street. I love Emma and Robert’s house in uptown. Emma is one of the contributors to the anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (coming in March 2017).  We visited Octavia Books to introduce ourselves and leave a press release for the book, hoping to give a reading/signing there in the spring. Wonderful bookstore—and of course I had to buy something. Two things, actually. A Christmas gift that I won’t describe here in case the receiver is reading, and the novel The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro, which I’ve been wanting to read. We had delicious crepes at Toast, just down the street from the bookstore.

Susan w graff outside Ogden

Maude Schuyler Clay at Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Maude Schuyler Clay at Ogden Museum of Southern Art

 

Next I stopped at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art to see my friend Maude Schuyler Clay’s photography exhibit, Mississippi History. I already had Maude’s wonderful book, which included many of the photos on exhibit, but there was something special about seeing the prints in person at the exhibit. She captures the souls of her subjects in such a beautiful, haunting way.

Outside the museum I was happy to discover this wall of graffiti done by NOLA graf writers.

mugAnd then I stopped into the coffee/gift shop at the Contemporary Art Center, just across the street from the Ogden. There is so much art in this city! I treated myself to a new coffee mug as a reminder of my visit

Monday night Jonathan joined us again, this time for dinner at Emeril’s, which is only a block from our hotel. I had never been, and again the atmosphere, service, and food did not disappoint.

"Abstraction" by Will Henry Stevens, ca.1940

“Abstraction” by Will Henry Stevens, ca.1940

 

On Tuesday I ventured out again (it’s pretty easy to drive around New Orleans, by the way) to the Paris Parker Salon on Prytania for a shampoo and blow out (and picked up a few Christmas gifts—it’s an Aveda salon). “Andrea” did my hair when I was here back in June, and it was fun feeling like one of her “regulars.” (She also does the head chef at Comander’s Palace’s hair, which I’ve never seen, but his food is great!)  Next I drove out to City Park to stroll around the lakes and enjoy the breeze and the ducks and geese. NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) is in the Park, so I spent about an hour there, appreciating their permanent collection but loving their abstract exhibits, with works by Picasso, Modigliani, Miro, and others. I discovered New Orleans abstract artist Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949). Like Kandinsky, Stevens viewed painting as an almost spiritual experience, a way of connecting people to a universal truth.

beignetsI ended my visit to City Park at Morning Call, where I ate all three beignets covered in powdered sugar with my coffee while enjoying a nice breeze on the patio.

Next I found my way back to Magazine Street to drop by Uptown Needle and CraftWorks and browse a few more shops. (Yes, more Christmas gifts, and a couple of happies for myself.)

Streetcar Spritzer on the porch at The Columns Hotel

Streetcar Spritzer on the porch at The Columns Hotel

Then at three o’clock, when the porch opens at The Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, I was there, enjoying a Streetcar Spritzer while reading a book Emma loaned me—Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini. I was interested in this book, published twenty-five years ago, because I’m editing a similar collection with exclusively Southern contributors (coming out in 2018). I especially enjoyed the Foreword, and essays by Richard Ford and Gail Godwin. Pack and Parini say, in the Foreword, “… the essays all

at The Columns on St. Charles

at The Columns on St. Charles

reveal an underlying commitment to writing as a craft, something that can be passed on from generation to generation of writers, and to the notion of literature as a place where values are tested, where ideas are bodied forth, where the only limits are those enforced by the limits of a writer’s own imagination: limits that, by the paradox of art, make the production possible.” Reading those words got me excited about writing an introduction for my Southern writers anthology!

Su door PecheTuesday night Bill and I had reservations at Peche, which we always enjoy when we’re in NOLA. (Peche has won at least two James Beard awards.) One of the owner/chefs, Ryan Prewitt, is Tom Prewitt’s son. (We had dinner with Tom and Ellen on Friday, remember?) I love how connected our visit has been. So, we arrive at Peche (a short walk from our hotel) just before 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night in November, and the bar crowd is flowing out into the street and every table is full. We always enjoy the whole fish, but we especially loved the oysters on the hall shell.

Bill oysters pecheWe decided to try six Louisiana oysters and six from Alabama. I liked the ‘Bama oysters the best, but they were all delicious! It was November 15… the 47th anniversary of our engagement! Why November 15? It was the night Ole Miss beat Tennessee 38-0 in Jackson, Mississippi. “Archie Who?” (Romantic, right?)

Today is our last day here. After I finish this post, I’m heading over to the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk (a few blocks from our hotel) to do a little more Christmas shopping. Tonight will be our only evening meal that we didn’t plan ahead of time. Our friends Emma and Robert recommended Mandina’s on Canal Street. They don’t take reservations, so I think we’ll show up and see what happens. Tomorrow we’ll drive home to Memphis, stopping at the cemetery in Jackson to visit Mom and Dad, my brother Mike, and my Goddaughter Mary Allison. I know they aren’t really there—but I always feel closer to them when I visit their graves. This has really been a wonderful vacation, even for Bill, who has mixed business with pleasure in his usual seamless way. Thanks for reading—I hope you enjoyed my little travelogue, and can find your way to some of these great places the next time you visit New Orleans!

Wiggle Those Hips

A Century of FashionI live about 15 minutes from a wonderful place—The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Sometimes I go there alone, to take my time, wandering slowly through the galleries where the permanent collection always reveals something new and the temporary exhibitions are as refreshing as the chef’s special at a favorite restaurant. But yesterday I was invited to go there with a new friend who just moved in across the street from me. Judy had two tickets to the museum’s fundraiser, “A Century of Fashion: Part II.”

BrooksAs we walked in the front door, there wasn’t really time to gaze at any art, as my friend introduced me to her fellow members of the museum’s league. And even as we made our way to the auditorium where the fashion show would be held, there were models wandering around the galleries, like this wonderful young couple, Terel and Chrisla Key, who are from my hometown, Jackson, Mississippi.

As the show progressed, I found myself envying the models (and their figures, including many who are older than me) and thinking back about how I’ve always loved to dress up. From the dresses my grandmother made me for piano recitals and school plays in elementary school, to high school and college formals, and the “flower child” wedding gown and hat I chose for my 1970 wedding. (The bridesmaids wore dotted swiss bell-bottomed pants and tunics. It was a hippie fashion show for sure.) Even now, I enjoy shopping at small boutiques so much ore than chain stores and big department stores, although the larger shops to seem to accommodate my fuller figure these days.

Olivia Lewis (l) and Carolyn Springfield-Harvey (r)

Olivia Lewis (l) and Carolyn Springfield-Harvey (r)

One thing I loved about this show at the Brooks was the way the “women of a certain age” carried themselves in those elegant vintage dresses and high heels. And the furs! Growing up in Mississippi, I was always amazed at how many women (like my father’s mother and my own mother) wore fur in the few weeks of winter when it was cold enough. Two of my neighbors—Olivia Lewis and Carolyn Springfield-Harvey, were among the six or eight fur models at the show, and they truly were elegant.

babbie lovettThe woman who organized and moderated the show, Babbie Lovett, is in her eighties. She wore her gray hair pulled straight back into a long, skinny ponytail, which glistened against her elegant black gown. She hardly looked at a note as she took us on a journey through the history of fashion for the past hundred years, in honor of the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2016. Her passion was evident as she described each decade and the things that informed fashion year by year, and then each outfit with beautiful prose. At times I found myself looking at her instead of the models on stage, wondering what my life would be like in twenty years. Would I still love clothes and enjoy them as part of the beauty of art in our culture? I wanted to be her when I grow up.

Whenever I visit New York City I always look forward to seeing the current exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Near the end of 2017 MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art), also in NYC, will open a new exhibit titled “Items: Is Fashion Modern.” The exhibit will feature 99 garments and accessories that have had a strong impact on history and society in the 20th and 21st centuries, and even today. I love that these museums consider clothing—whether costumes, haute couture, or ready-to-wear—to be a form of art.

 

Memphian Paul Thomas, curator of the new Orange Mound Art Gallery, helped produce the show. I loved seeing so many volunteers and independent contractors at the Brooks Museum this weekend participate as hostesses, flower arrangers, caterers, organizers, promoters, and models. The spirit was festive, and I left with my mood lifted and my love for all things beautiful rewarded. And yes, maybe I even wiggled my hips a little more as I walked out of the museum, although I was wearing cowboy boots instead of heels (which hurt my injured feet). I found myself holding my shoulders back and my chin up, while checking my posture along with my reflection in the glass when I exited the building. I found myself thinking about Madeleine L’Engle’s words (maybe she was quoting Jean Rhys), “We all feed the lake.”

I Can Sleep When I’m Dead

He Qi. Christ in the House of Mary and MarthaChinese, ca.2005

He Qi. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
Chinese, ca.2005

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about Barbara Crafton’s “almost daily eMos” from her online site, “The Geranium Farm.” Crafton takes a work of art and reflects on it in these posts, and I look forward to them every day. Today’s post shows a contemporary Chinese painting by He Qi, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” As Crafton reminds the reader of the scriptural account of these two sisters and their different approaches to serving Christ as a visitor in their home, I thought about how I have played each role during different seasons of my life—sometimes the busy Martha, serving my family and volunteering for everything at church, and sometimes the contemplative Mary, metaphorically sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Crafton shares an essay she wrote earlier, “Lazybones,” as part of her reflection on Mary’s seeming laziness set against Martha’s physical acts of serving. I love these words from Crafton’s essay:

People who sit and read—anything—are honoring their Mary selves. I am sure that starting anywhere, even with the silliest of novels, is just fine: the efficiency you build as a reader and your growing sophistication as a person will lead you toward more substantial fare, and to grow in knowledge of any kind is to grow closer to God.

During a more intense spiritual season of my life, I only read religious books. I must have devoured fifty volumes by early Church fathers, monastics, mystics, church historians, and theologians during a two-year period in the mid 1990s. I withdrew from “the world” in the sense that I also didn’t listen to secular music and rarely watched television. When I came out of this season, I found myself starved for good literature, good music, and good theater, movies and television drama. As I began to write seriously, my thirst for reading increased. It was as if the words I devoured in novels, memoirs, and essay collections had become the fuel for my own work. That’s still true today.

indexI couldn’t go to sleep last night. I went to bed around 10:30, but I had another bout of “monkey mind” and just couldn’t turn it off. So I got up around 1 and read until about 2:30 this morning. I think I finally fell asleep around 3 a.m. My current read is British travel writer Richard Grant’s amazing book, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta. It’s about the move he made from New York City to the small Delta town of Pluto, Mississippi, where he discovered what he calls the best-kept secret in America. And because I probably have ADD and usually read two to three books at a time, I’m also reading Barbara Crafton’s short book, The Courage to Grow Old, which is a soulful reality check for those of us in our sixth decade and beyond.

Sometimes, as a writer, I just sit. Yes, I sit and read, but sometimes I just sit. This would appear lazy to someone who doesn’t understand that sitting still is part of a writer’s work. This sitting can take place in front of a blank page on a computer screen, or on a bench by the Mississippi River, just a few blocks from my house. It can take place in my living room, or (maybe especially) when I’m driving alone on a trip. I rarely turn on the radio when I drive, enjoying the familiar or new scenery, but also allowing my mind to wander in a way that it rarely does when I’m at home. I’ll be doing that tomorrow, as I drive over to Little Rock to visit a friend. And although it’s not part of the Mississippi Delta, the miles of flat fields and the occasional crop duster flying over my head on Highway 40 between Memphis and Little Rock will remind me of Grant’s life down in Pluto, Mississippi, and the lessons he learned there.
So I’ll walk through my Friday a bit sleep-deprived but filled with images and words that feed my soul. Like Jason Michael Carroll says, I can sleep when I’m dead.

The Altar and the Portico: Gallery Art and Icons

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart. 2012.

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart. 2012.

Just read an amazing (but very long) article in The Orthodox Arts Journal:

“The Altar and The Portico (pt. 2): Gallery Art” by Aidan Hart. Subtitles tell more: THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR… The Relationship of Orthodox Iconography and Gallery Art.

Hart was a secular artist before becoming Orthodox and pursuing iconography. He worked as a sculptor within the Anglican/Episcopal church. Here’s a bit about what was driving him:

As a Christian I wanted this spirituality to embrace the material world, not to be a flight from it. I felt that this incarnational approach was all the more important in a secular age which worshipped matter and where one could not assume any prior knowledge of Christianity.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Hart’s move towards iconography mirrors some of my own interests, although his was on a professional level:

To abstract means literally to “draw out”, and in its original meaning it denotes the discovery and manifestation of the essence of the subject, and not departure from reality as it tends to be understood today.

The art most influential for me at this stage was Egyptian and African work. Although perhaps too disembodied, too extreme in their abstraction, these sculptures helped me to reach some conclusions about how to indicate the spiritual. Most notably I learned the importance of a strong vertical axis or elongation; stillness rather than agitated movement; and emphasis on the eyes. Constantine Brancusi and Modigliani were also influences.

I’ve always been a fan of abstract art. I’ve never thought about why I like Modigliani so much, but I also liked his work before I studied iconography. Hart eventually visited some Orthodox monks in New Zealand—one of who was an iconographer—and found what he had been searching for. He became Orthodox in 1983 and began writing icons. And then he began to wonder how spiritual art could find a place in galleries:

For me personally there are two types of artwork that do this: that which depicts suffering but with compassion, and that which suggests the world transfigured by light…. So first, compassionate art. Such works can help us see the divine image beneath suffering, and even behind ignorant acts. They show us that what makes us capable of suffering is also what makes us human.

Then he writes about the world transfigured by light:

Another form of threshold art is the art of illumination. Ascetic writers both East and West describe three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination and union… Icons indicate this luminous grace symbolically by such things as gold lines on trees, furniture and garments, and of course also haloes and golden backgrounds.

I’ve only touched on the treasures in this article, so I hope that if you’re interested in art and/or spirituality, you’ll give it a read. There are also lots of terrific illustrations of Hart’s work in the article. Enjoy!

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