The Zosima Society, Collective Wisdom Project, and the New Hagiography

zosima society IG imageI recently came across Andrew Herman Middleton’s Facebook and Instagram pages, known as “The Zosima Society.” He also started a Facebook group called “Orthodoxy and Culture,” which currently has 288 members. The description for the group is:

This is a place to discuss how Orthodoxy influences culture, and what kind of culture is beneficial to the Orthodox spiritual life.”

Andrew’s Facebook page is “Orthodoxy + Arts” and his page description says:

“An international network of Orthodox Christian non-liturgical artists. Previously OrthArts.”

CB on Zosima SocietyAndrew features non-liturgical artists, musicians, and writers who are Orthodox in his Instagram posts, and has recently begun a series based on my novel CHERRY BOMB, which features an Orthodox monastery, church, nuns, saints, and even weeping icons. He uses the hash tag #zosimasociety for each post, and featured the first one for CHERRY BOMB on Monday, August 6—the Feast of the Transfiguration. Here’s what his post looks like (left). Follow him on Instagram for future posts.

He is also host of the Protecting Veil You Tube Channel, home of the “Collective Wisdom Project.”  Here’s a recent interview he did with Father Stephen Freeman, “Why Did You Become Orthodox?” Andrew hopes to be in Memphis in the next few weeks and has asked me for an interview, so stay tuned.

I’m not sure how he balances all of these projects, but Andrew also has a site called “New Hagiography” which is “the ancient indie folktronica project of itinerant musician Andrew Herman Middleton.” So, what’s the New Hagiography about?

Ancient holy men and women played an important role in the history and development of Western culture, but knowledge of many of them has been  forgotten. Who were these intriguing figures, what animated their lives, what were their hopes and dreams?

New Hagiography retells their stories, beginning with the flowering of Celtic Christianity in 5th century Ireland.

A note about terminology: iconography refers to painted images of Christ and the saints; hagiography refers to the writing of their stories with words.

I’m so happy to have found Andrew and his projects, and I hope that other non-liturgical Orthodox writers, artists and musicians will join him in sharing their work at #zosimasociety.

Icons Will Save the World

My friend Dr. Joanna Seibert invited me to contribute a guest post to her beautiful blog, “Daily Something.” She’s doing a series of reflections on quotes and images, and I was honored that she included an excerpt from an essay I had published eleven years ago in First Things, “Icons Will Save the World.” Here‘s the post, with the excerpt:

“Icons”

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

 

static1.squarespace.comI can’t remember how I first met Joanna, but we’ve been friends for many years, and have visited both in Memphis and in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she lives. She is an emeritus professor of radiology and pediatrics at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences and has been an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas for sixteen years. Joanna is the author of numerous books including, The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for Busy People and The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for People in Recovery, Healing Presence, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food as Seen by a Mother and Daughter, and a two-volume series of sermons, Interpreting the World to the Church.  She has been a writer for Forward, Day by Day, and has been a frequent contributor to the Living Church, and the Anglican Digest.

Subscribe to Joanna’s “Daily Something” and enjoy her inspirational quotes, art, and meditations.

Read more about St. John Orthodox Church, which is pictured above.

 

Heidelberg, Mark Twain, and Worms

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

The first time I went to Europe, about 36 years ago, my husband and I stayed in a small village on the Neckar River, about 50 miles from Heidelberg. This was in around 1982. We were there for a symposium my husband was part of, and they had us tucked away in a remote little village. I remember playing tennis with a French girl on courts that overlooked the Neckar River. And opening our windows every morning to story-book scenes of milk being delivered outside our castle-like hotel. Our only site-seeing excursion during the symposium was to Heidelberg.

 Bill Susan castleThirty six years later we returned, on Day 5 of our Viking Rhine River Cruise. Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest university town, known as the cradle of the German Romantic movement. It’s most famous example of baroque architecture, the Heidelberg Castle is a magnificent red standstone ruin perched 330 feet above the river. It was partially destroyed by fire in the 17th century.

 

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

 

 

 

 

As our tour bus ascended to the castle, I snapped a picture of one of the hotels where Mark Twain stayed in the summer of 1878, Hotel Schrieder, now a Crowne Plaza. Of Heidelberg Twain said the city was “the last possibility of the beautiful.” In 1880 he published “A Tramp Abroad,” which includes the story of a raft journey down the river. graf w Red Ox InnThis was published several years before “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Many people in Heidelberg believe, therefore, that the Neckar was as influential as the Mississippi to Twain’s writing.

 Later we walked past this graffiti piece, which featured the Red Ox Inn, where Twain spent much of his leisure time. The guide didn’t point the graffiti out, but I’m always on the watch for street art and was thrilled to see the Red Ox Inn included.

 

The castle moat and grounds were fascinating, but the views of the Old City and river and buildings across the river from the castle were my favorite part of the tour.

view

moat

 

Our boat actually docked at Speyer for our Heidelberg tour, on the west bank of the Rhine. There was a beautiful park there, and lots of local art.

 IMG_3083IMG_2992

Protestant Church at Speyer

Protestant Church at Speyer

 

We took an informal walk into town without the group and into the “Memorial Church of the Protestation” a historic Luthern and Reformed church built between 1893 and 1904, to commemorate the Diet of Speyer.

 church inerior

 

The term “protestant” originated in Speyer in 1529 at the Diet of Speyer, when 14 free cities of Germany and six Lutheran princes protested the Edict of Worms that had banned the writings of Martin Luther and labeled him a heretic and enemy of the state. I grew up Presbyterian and was a huge fan of Martin Luther, but I never thought about why it was called the Edict of Worms until we cruised alongside Worms headed into Speyer. So much history all around us on this amazing trip.

 

Stay tuned for my next post where we head across the Rhine and dip our toes into France for one day….

Memento Mori, Orthodox Theology, Tattoos, and Flannery O’Connor

Jon tattooI had never heard the Latin phrase, “memento mori,”until a couple of weeks ago when we were in New Orleans, having dinner with our son Jonathan one night. He showed us his new tattoo (see photo at right), which has the phrase at the bottom of the picture. I asked him what it meant, and he said it was an Army thing…. Something from Caesar that meant “remember you will die,” or something similar. Jon spent twelve years in the army, flying helicopters for two of his three tours in the middle east, often facing death up close and personal.

Melissa Conroy artI Googled the phrase later and the closest translation I found was similar—“Remember that you have to die.” I read more about its military origins, especially as it related to “Roman triumphs.”

A couple of days later, I discovered some art work Melissa Conroy (Pat Conroy’s daughter) posted on Instagram (see left) and couldn’t believe that it was also about memento mori. So, having never heard the phrase, now I was seeing it twice within a week or so. Was there a message there for me? Oh, but wait….

Confessions RIVERThe next day I started reading (an advance readers copy of) River Jordan’s upcoming book, Confessions of a Christian Mystic, (which is awesome and will be out in 2019) and, if you can believe this, the title of chapter 6 of her book is “Memento Mori”! How synchronistic—or maybe, how mystical!

When Jon first told me about the phrase, I thought about how the Church fathers often referred to something similar, encouraging Christians to keep their death before them at all times, so that they would live more godly lives. I found St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s “On the Remembrance of Death,” and read part of it again. Written primarily for monks, it’s a bit more intense than I can embrace in my current lifestyle, but the concept of living as though one might die soon isn’t a bad thing.

Mom and Dad graveI had the opportunity to have my own death brought closer in my mind this past week, when I visited the graves of my mother, father, brother, and Goddaughter—all within a few feet of each other—at Natchez Trace Memorial Park in Madison, Mississippi. My mother Effie Johnson died two years ago May 22. My brother Mike Johnson died eleven years ago this past January. And this year I will commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the deaths of my father Bill Johnson (July 9) and my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway (September 18).

Mary Allison's graveAs I brushed the dirt off the grave markers and placed fresh flowers in the vases, I sang “The Angel Cried,” and shouted, “Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen,” and then spent some time sitting on a bench under a beautiful tree near the graves. I talked to each of these four people I loved so much. And I also thought about my own death. I thanked God that He has allowed me to live my 67 years so far, and hasn’t taken me during times (days, weeks, months, or years) when I was angry, or when I was withholding forgiveness from others. With much joy I realized that I am more at peace now than I’ve ever been in my life, and for that I am so grateful. Maybe I’m beginning to learn to live like I am dying.

Mike's grave

Meanwhile, a few more reflections on tattoos. My husband doesn’t like them. Lots of folks don’t. I didn’t always, as my kids remember. But I do now. Maybe for the same reason that I like graffiti, when it’s done as art and not as a gang message. I can see how folks would like to use their skin as a canvas to share a message. About nine years ago a group of women got together for a Groupwtattoosgoing-away-party for my Goddaughter Julie Stanek (now Julie Stell) who was moving to Pennsylvania. Part of the fun included temporary tattoos—several of us, including Julie, were artists and it seemed a fitting way to remember the day. I did a couple of posts back when some of us were gathering at Julie’s to do art together. We called ourselves the “Mixed Bag Ladies.” Here’s another post about the group.

BreaktheSkin-cvr-768x1167As I was reading another advance readers copy this week—this time it’s Lee Martin’s upcoming short story collection, The Mutual UFO Network,—I remembered one of his earlier books, titled Break the Skin. I Googled the cover because I remembered that it had this haunting image of a woman with a beautiful tattoo. Its design reminds me of some of Mare’s graffiti in my novel Cherry Bomb. Lee is an amazing writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his novel, The Bright Forever. More synchronicity….

parkersback1And finally, having just finished “launch week” for my new anthology, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, I realized that at each of the three events—at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, and Novel Books in Memphis—at least one panelist mentioned Flannery O’Connor. An inspiration to many southern writers and readers, her short story “Parker’s Back” involves a tattoo of a Byzantine icon of Christ on the back of one of the characters. The first time I read the story I loved how O’Connor tied her gritty southern character to Byzantine iconography, and I hoped to emulate her as characters in my novel and also in a short story I recently drafted are changed by icons. I’ll close with an interesting article I found today by an Orthodox priest Father James Coles, “Man is an Icon of God,” in which he talks about “Parker’s Back.” Thanks, always, for reading.

 

Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (a book review)

Bead by Bead coverBead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

By Suzanne Smith Henley

 

Suzanne Henley is an artist. And a renovator of old houses. And an author. Her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New, is being released by Paraclete Press on March 13. TODAY! I wrote a bit about it back in January, here:

“Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons”

I’ve been looking forward to this for many reasons, but mainly these four:

 

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

(1) In 2013 I was in a life-threatening car wreck. I broke my neck, right leg, and ankle, and was stuck in my house for the first few months of my recovery. One day Suzanne came to see me and brought me a beautiful necklace she had made from these exotic beads from all over the world. They were prayer beads. And a she had written a description and meditation to go with it. I held them as I lay in my hospital bed (at home) and prayed. And later I hung them on the wall near my computer as a reminder of her kindness and God’s grace and healing.

(2) I share a love of art and spirituality with Suzanne, although my art takes the form of writing (painting) icons in the ancient Byzantine style using egg tempera. And I have been taught to make and use Orthodox prayer ropes—tied with knots rather than strung with beads—as part of a practice of meditation and prayer.

(3) For several years I was in a writing group that Suzanne hosted in her home here in Memphis. I knew right away that she was a gifted writer, and when she submitted sections of her work-in-progress for us to critique, I knew it was something special. Part memoir, part spiritual meditation, her personal essays—which is what they seemed at the time—eventually joined with chapters about prayer beads, and Bead by Bead came together.

(4) A fourth reason for my excitement about this book is that Suzanne contributed a wonderful essay to a collection I edited, and which was published last year by Mercer University Press: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Her essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is a gripping story of personal trauma and her eventual blooming into a stronger, more amazing woman. And so for these four and even more reasons, I celebrate Suzanne’s book.

Suzanne doesn’t claim to be an expert on prayer beads, or even on prayer itself. But I love what she says about prayer in that very disclaimer in the beginning of her book, in the section called “Rebranding Prayer”:

I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have to come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself. I think it is the psychic glue between my conscious and shadow self where we all wrestle with Jacob’s angel and count our scars later.

 

Suzanne Henley

Suzanne Henley

She introduces the book by explaining that the stories she has included represent “a prayer bead in my life’s rosary…. The book is also an adult version of Show and Tell of some of the hundreds and hundreds of sets of prayer beads I’ve made—each unique, many commissioned to be carried to diverse people around the world. Many of the stories I tell are accounts of these real people for whom praying bead by bead has become an essential spiritual practice.”

In the Prologue, Suzanne tells the story of her employee, O.G. Pierre (“Original Gangster Pierre”) who asked her to make prayer bead necklaces for all the members of his gang, using a Star of David for each one, since it was the symbol of the Gangster Disciples. She had to decline that request.

In “Talking to God in Braile,” she traces the history of prayer beads in various pre-Christian religions, and then continues with the history of prayer beads being used by Christian faiths, including Orthodox prayer ropes and Catholic rosaries.

In “Clearing Your Cache and Beginning to Pray,” Suzanne explains how to use the beads—physically and spiritually—in your daily encounters with God.

In “Prayers, Poems, Lectio, Music, Silence,” she encourages the reader to write her own prayers, but she also offers some traditional prayers for use with prayer beads, and talks about the use of hymns, chanting, and even classical music and opera to assist in prayer.

In “Praying the Beads Without the Beads,” she offers opportunities for prayer while grocery shopping, waiting in traffic or a doctor’s office, doing laundry, and other everyday situations. In this and other chapters, she infuses her writing with humorous true stories from her life, like “Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon.”

Her chapter, “Homework: Life as a Set of Prayer Beads,” contains the story of her experience having a panic attack and checking into a psychiatric facility, which she wrote about in her essay for A Second Blooming. She also writes about the business she started, renovating homes in a historic district here in Memphis, offering a strong parallel between her rehab in the psychiatric facility and rehabbing these houses:

And, as trite as it is to say, we are all, of course, rehabs. Every moment. Every day. Even when we seem to be stuck out in some endless, parched desert, our hearts and souls cracking and dying of thirst, we’re handed the gift of starting over. Failure simply means an opportunity to begin again. We get to wrench out those old, rusted nails we worked so hard to hammer in crookedly, pull out the warped boards, and try once more to hammer a straighter nail. Every day.

BEAD BY BEAD would make a wonderful gift for Easter or Mother’s Day or… just because!

Girlfriend Weekend Take-Aways (New Friends, Original Art, Inspiration, and Books!)

Authors at Girlfriend Weekend.

Authors at Girlfriend Weekend.

 

Dressed as Joan Didion (those are some of her books in my necklace) for the final party, with River Jordan in her Bohemian chic outfit

Dressed as Joan Didion (those are some of her books in my necklace) for the final party, with River Jordan in her Bohemian chic outfit

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve already seen how I photo-bombed the place all weekend with pictures from the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Nacodoches, Texas. And here’s a fun blog from River Jordan about the event: “Leaving Nacodoches.” It was a treat to have River spend the night with us in Memphis last night on her way home to Nashville, so we could rehash the weekend a bit. By the way, Nacodoches is the oldest town in Texas, and a lovely, quaint, artsy, little town. Wish I had had more time to explore while I was there. Maybe next time!

There’s so much I could say about the weekend… a wonderful time to get to know other authors and to visit with the ones I know and rarely get to see. Also great to meet so many enthusiastic book club members and readers, all lovers of good books. The theme was “Bohemian Rhapsody” so there were lots of costumes, as we dressed as hippies, gypsies, anything Bohemian, and favorite authors.

I was blessed to be on two panels during the weekend:

Thursday night: As editor for A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (with contributors River Jordan, Julie Cantrell, Susan Marquez, and NancyKay Wessman.)

Panel for A SECOND BLOOMING: Susan Marquez, River Jordan, Julie Cantrell, me, and NancyKay Wessman

Panel for A SECOND BLOOMING: Susan Marquez, River Jordan, Julie Cantrell, me, and NancyKay Wessman

Saturday afternoon: For my novel CHERRY BOMB, I shared a panel with three other authors whom I had never met: Deborah Rodriguez, Patricia V. Davis, and Stephanie Chance. Pulpwood Queens Founder Kathy Murphy moderated the panel.

Kathy Murphy moderated the panel I was on for CHERRY BOMB, with authors Stephanie Chance, Patricia V. Davis, and Deborah Rodriquez.

Kathy Murphy moderated the panel I was on for CHERRY BOMB, with authors Stephanie Chance, Patricia V. Davis, and Deborah Rodriquez.

With author Shellie Tomlinson Rushing at the dinner where the authors served the book club members.

With author Shellie Rushing Tomlinson at the dinner where the authors served the book club members.

After each panel, the authors went to the signing tables, where readers brought books they purchased from Murder By the Book, who were the book vendors for the weekend. All of this was pretty typical of a book festival. What wasn’t typical was the amount of time the authors and readers had to really hang out together and get to know one another. On Friday night the authors served the tables at the barbeque dinner for the readers. And all during the weekend there were opportunities to eat together or just visit over car or a drink at the bar. It’s a pretty magical event.

Something I loved was the silent auction. Authors brought items—often related to their books—for sale to benefit the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I was happy to sell a canvas print of the “weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I painted, which is featured in my novel CHERRY BOMB. And I made two purchases (of course): a set of Mexican pottery from Deborah Rodriguez, and a painting by Nicole Seitz called “Setting Free,” which has layers of meaning for me.

With Nicole Seitz and her original painting which I bought at the silent auction.

With Nicole Seitz and her original painting which I bought at the silent auction.

Thanks to Tiajuana Anderson Neel who bought the "weeping" icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I contributed.

Thanks to Tiajuana Anderson Neel who bought the “weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I contributed.

I’ve shared a few photos (lots more are on Facebook, as I mentioned) but I’d also like to share something about the 6 books I purchased from authors I met this weekend. I’m sure some of these will show up as book reviews here on my blog in the future. Although there were several New York Times best-selling authors at the event, some of the books that caught my attention were by lesser-known writers, and I can’t wait to read them:

books from PQ Wknd

 

GRADLE BIRD is J. C. Sasser’s first novel. I’m intrigued by the protagonist, sixteen-year-old Gradle Bird, who lives with her grandpa in a seedy motel and truck stop in Georgia. I think that she and Mare—the protagonist in my novel CHERRY BOMB (a sixteen-year-old runaway orphan who becomes a graffiti artist)—would be best friends! At one point during the panel that J.C. shared with Nicole Seitz and Bren McClain, J.C. mentioned that Gradle Bird and the other nobels on the panel were considered “Southern Gothic.” As she described the term, I wondered if CHERRY BOMB might also fit into that genre…. although I marketed it as Southern literary fiction. Anyway, GRADLE BIRD is on top of my “to read” stack from the weekend!

THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is Laurel Davis Huber’s first novel. I enjoyed getting to know Laurel during the weekend, and learning that we are the same age and on a similar trajectory in our writing careers. We also learned that we both love art and it plays a major role in both of our debut novels. Can’t wait to read THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER, which is about Margery Williams Biano, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter Pamela, a world-renowned child prodigy artist

TO THE STARS THROUGH DIFFICULTIES by Romalyn Tilghman caught my interest because it features women who are descendants of the women who built fifty-nine Carnegie libraries in Kansas a century earlier. It’s about the importance of art and literature, and especially libraries, in our lives. Having visited six Friends of the Library groups in small towns all over Mississippi to talk about my novel CHERRY BOMB this past fall and winter, my interest in libraries has grown, and I can’t wait to read this book. And… a conversation I had with Romalyn this weekend sparked an idea for my next novel. Stay tuned!

WALKING ON BROKEN GLASS isn’t Christa Allan’s latest book, but it’s the one I bought after visiting with Christa this weekend. The subtitle for the books is FACING SOBRIETY WITH SOUTHERN CHARM. It’s about a southern socialist who goes to rehab. As Publisher Weekly says: “This nonformulaic look at the spiritual redemption of a life is a bright start; debut novelist Allan is one to watch.” Christa’s recent novel, which she spoke about on her panel Saturday afternoon, is BECAUSE YOU LOVED ME.

THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES also isn’t the novel that Alice Hoffman came to talk about this weekend. Hoffman is the author of Practical Magic, which was made into a movie. And about 30 other books! As a New York Times best-selling author, she was a keynote speaker on Saturday morning. She talked about how “writing is the most interactive of all the arts,” and “why reading is better than sex.” And she talked about “inside and outside stories in a novel—inside being what’s happening emotionally.” Lots of inspiration for authors and readers alike. But I was drawn to THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES because it’s about a famous artist and takes place in France… a favorite topic and location for me!

STEP OUT STEP UP: LESSONS FROM LIFETIME OF TRANSITIONS AND MILITARY SERVICE by Mark E. Green, Lt. Col., U.S. Army Retired (co-written with Echo Montgomery Garrett) is a book I bought for my oldest son Jonathan, who is a retired Army helicopter pilot. I enjoyed visiting with Mark and Echo, especially learning about Mark’s experiences with the 82nd Airborne and his service in Afghanistan. In his retirement Mark helps those in military service, veterans, and their families with resiliency and transition. I look forward to hearing what our son thinks of the book.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned as I move forward with a new novel and get busy with pre-marketing for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING.

Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons

ASB CoverI’m off to Nacogdoches, Texas, on Thursday for the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, where as many as several hundred members of Pulpwood Queens book clubs from all over the country gather every year, along with several dozen authors. I’m on two panels:

Thursday, 7 p.m. A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE. This is the anthology I edited, published last March, and it has been chosen as the book club selection for February by the Pulpwood Queens. Several contributors will be joining me on the panel: Julie Cantrell, River Jordan, NancyKay Wessman, and Susan Marquez. Memphis author Suzanne Henley won’t be there, but she will be there in spirit. Suzanne’s essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is included in the collection. And she has a book coming out this March: BEAD BY BEAD: THE ANCIENT WAY OF PRAYING MADE NEW. It’s part memoir, part spiritual journal, part “how to pray with Protestant prayer beads.”

Bead by Bead FULLCover_need Spine

 

Prayer BeadsThere’s an auction during the weekend to raise money for the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina. Suzanne has contributed a hand-made set of her prayer beads, which I’ll be taking with me to the auction on Thursday. The beads she uses are from all over the world, some as ancient as 200 B.C. She includes a beautifully written description and inspirational note to go with each set. She has dedicated this set to author Julie Cantrell, who has inspired Suzanne, and who also wrote a wonderful blurb for BEAD BY BEAD. Julie is also on a panel for her novel PERENNIALS during the weekend.

Prayer Beads notes

On Saturday afternoon at 2:12 I’ll be on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB, which is one of the Pulpwood Queens book club selections for March. And I’m contributing an item for the auction, as well. It’s an 8 X 8 inch canvas print of the “weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I painted… the one that appears on the back cover of the book. CB cover FINALIn CHERRY BOMB, the icon is weeping for women who have been abused (including the three main characters in the book). The icon I painted isn’t actually weeping, but my daughter-in-law See Cushman added the “tears” using Photoshop. I hope that it will be a blessing to whoever buys it during the auction.

 

Mary of Egypt weeping

 

 

I can’t wait to spend the weekend with these amazing women, sharing our love for books! The theme this year is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so watch for some pictures on Facebook with lots of fun costumes!

The Big Reveal (for 2018)

After such a banner year (publishing 3 books in 2017) I’m excited to say that my fourth book will be out in May of 2018:

Southern Writers on Writing, an anthology I edited, coming from University Press of Mississippi.

With a foreword by Alan Lightman (a Memphis native known mostly for his brilliant science writing) and essays by twenty-six southern authors (13 women and 13 men), this is a collection the literary world has been waiting for. Last week I read this wonderful guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, “How and Why to Edit an Anthology,” by Margot Kahn, which was encouraging, as I’ve had such a positive experience putting together this collection.

Just got the official COVER to share! Thanks to Oxford (Mississippi) photographer Ed Croom for this wonderful image. Ed read the essays in the collection first, and drew inspiration from them for his photo shoot at Rowan Oak, the historic home of William Faulkner. You can read more about the photograph in my Author’s Note when the book comes out!

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVER

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

A Piece of the (Art) World

a-piece-of-the-world-by-christina-baker-klineI love books about art and artists—obviously—since my novel Cherry Bomb features a graffiti writer, an abstract expressionist artist (or several) and weeping icons. I’m always entertained and inspired by stories about famous (or even not-so-famous) works of art. Some of my favorites include:

 

Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Forest Lover, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, and The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis

The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

The Raphael Affair by Iain Pears

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

 

Last week I read Christina Baker Kline’s (author of Orphan Train) A Piece of the World. It was wonderful. Rich prose with beautifully descriptive settings and characters. It’s an “imagined fictional memoir” (according to Erik Larson) of the woman in the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World.

 

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

There are so many things to love about this book. Kline’s descriptions of life in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine, carries the reader into the world of Christina Olson, who ends up being Wyeth’s hostess in the summer months for several years, serving as his muse and also the subject of Christina’s World. I couldn’t help but love Christina, as the book takes us back to her heartbreaking childhood and then moves back and forth between the nineteen-teens and the 1940s.

It’s fascinating to me that Kline’s connection to the painting began in her own childhood, growing up in Bangor, Maine, where her father gave her a woodcut by a local artist inspired by Wyeth’s painting when she was eight years old. She made up stories about the girl in the painting throughout her childhood, and years later realized she was meant to write a book about it.

This is exactly the kind of experience I keep hoping to have—I’m looking for a subject for another novel, and I’m hoping to find either a piece of art or an artist that inspires a story. I know I’ve mentioned that I started one a couple of years ago about Jackson Pollack’s last painting, “Red, Black, and Silver,” but I haven’t been able to love it enough to continue. When I visited Paris for the first time in May of 2016, I hoped that the time I spent in art galleries might lead to a discovery, but nothing grabbed my attention long enough to inspire a book.

Meanwhile I keep reading. My current read is Joshilyn Jackson’s latest novel The Almost Sisters. The protagonist is a comic book artist. I think I’m drawn to contemporary art and edgy stuff more than to the classics, although I also love anything about icons. I’d love to hear any suggestions for a painting or artist to write about… just leave me a comment here or on Facebook, or email me at sjcushman@gmail.com. Thanks!

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