Religion AND Spirituality

Last year I had the blessing of reading an advance reader’s copy of my friend River Jordan’s new book, Confessions of a Christian Mystic, which will be released on April 2. I knew it was something special, and I can’t wait for it to make its appearance! (Here’s a wonderful review of Confessions of a Christian Mystic by Tina Chambers

Over at Chapter 16: “Until the World is Full”. )

But today I want to talk about something that River said in this wonderful conversation she had with Silas House which was just published by Parnassus Books on their site, Musing:

The Holy Ground of Story: A Conversation Between Silas House and River Jordan

The whole conversation is wonderful—I especially like what she says about art and music not having to be “religious” to be part of what she calls “the holy ground of story”—but what I want to focus on today is this:

House asks,

“In the book you talk about how the word “Christian” is so loaded these days. . . . What do you say to the people who might hesitate reaching for this book because of that word in the title?”

I was on the edge of my seat to read River’s response to this, because I often post things in my blog or on social media that might be considered “loaded” in that they are unapologetically filled with not only spiritual terminology, but also words that are strongly religious, and specifically Christian. And in a more specific “subset,” Orthodox Christian. So here’s what River said in answer to House’s question:

I hope people will at least pick it up to peruse, discover it is a fusion of faith and fiction and essay and fall in love with the strange little genre-buster that it is.”

That’s what I hoped from the beginning for my novel Cherry Bomb. It’s not a genre-buster like Confessions—it’s a straight-up southern literary novel. But it’s infused with a (strange?) mix of sexual abuse, a religious cult, graffiti, Orthodox Christianity, abstract expressionist art, and weeping icons. I hoped (and still hope) for a readership beyond those who typically read Christian fiction, which Cherry Bomb is not. River addresses some of these same issues as she continues to answer House’s question:

“In the bigger picture, it occurs to me that many of us are not talking about our faith very much. We’re talking about great stories and music, fiction and movies, and where the greatest new Thai restaurant is; but apparently the conversation that features the Christian faith as we know it to be true is not part of our cultural mainstream. If it were, we wouldn’t cringe at the word or have need to defend it.”

Our “cultural mainstream” embraces the word “spiritual” with open arms—arms open wide enough to let in a wide diversity of beliefs, Christian or otherwise. But the word “religious” which seems to invoke a smaller and often maligned following, calls up a more legalistic image. What do you think of when you hear the word “religious”? What do you mean when you say or write it?

In this article from the Huffington Post a few years ago, Shahram Shiva—a longtime Rumi expert—defines a “religious” person in a fairly traditional manner, basically as one who follows the traditions of an established religion—Christian or otherwise. But then he limits his definition of a “spiritual” person to exclude people who are religious, offering this simple “test” to determine which camp we fall into:

It’s very easy to discover if you are religious or spiritual.
1. Do you worship any type of a deity or a God or a sect leader? This includes popular yoga gods such as Ganesh or Rama and so called gurus or masters. Then you are religious.

2. Do you believe in the power of your own self and that you are in charge of your destiny? In this case you are spiritual.

Shiva’s definition of a spiritual person excludes Christians, or others who worship any type of deity. And yet for centuries the Orthodox Christian Church—the faith that I follow—has held up their theologians as being “spiritual.”

The Greek Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, writes about these terms in “The Difference Between Orthodox Spirituality and Other Traditions”:

“Orthodox spirituality differs distinctly from any other “spirituality” of an eastern or western type. There can be no confusion among the various spiritualities, because Orthodox spirituality is God-centered, whereas all others are man-centered.”

Shiva would agree with Vlachos, since he says that a spiritual person believes in “the power of your own self.”

I wonder what Shiva thinks about the thousands of Orthodox Christians who follow the teachings of their Church on Orthodox spirituality? I love this article, “Orthodox Spirituality,” which appears on the website of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Here’s a short quote:

“Spirituality in the Orthodox Church means the everyday activity of life in communion with God. The term spirituality refers not merely to the activity of man’s spirit alone, his mind, heart and soul, but it refers as well to the whole of man’s life as inspired and guided by the Spirit of God.”

During Great Lent Christians focus on having our lives “inspired and guided by the Spirit of God” in a more dynamic way. It’s not that we only want to live this way for 40 days before Pascha (Easter) every spring. But sometimes during the other 325 days we lose a bit of steam and need our engines fired back up. I want to live a more “spiritual” life every day, but of course I fall short of my goals and repent and receive forgiveness and grace over and over. And all of this takes place within the walls–physical and spiritual—of my Church, and the religion it represents.

You can see River’s calendar of events on her tour for Confessions here, starting with her launch at Parnassus in Nashville on March 29. I’m excited that she will be here in Memphis on April 25, at Novel Books. Can’t wait to visit with her about all things mystical, spiritual, artistic, and yes, religious.

The Pulpwood Queen’s List for 2019

SWW with PQ badgeKathy L. Murphy, founder of The Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs, has chosen the following books as the “books of the month” for 2019. She has also chosen “bonus books” for each month. Her 700+ book clubs internationally are encouraged to read the book of the month and discuss it at their monthly meetings. It was such a joy to meet and visit with many of these authors last weekend at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas, where I moderated a panel for Southern Writers on Writing. I’m honored that SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING is the book Kathy chose for January! Looking for some great books to read in 2019?  Here is the Queen’s list:

JANUARYSouthern Writers on Southern Writing edited by Susan Cushman
Bonus Books:

Theologies of Terrain by Tim Conroy
In Pieces by Sally Field
Road Kill Art And Other Oddities by Niles Reddick
Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories by Niles Reddick
The Draw of Broken Eyes & Whirling Metaphysics: Poems by Charles Clifford Brooks III

FEBRUARYLove & Ruin: A Novel by Paula McLain
Bonus Books:

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson
Edge of the Wind by James E. Cherry
A Celebration of Words: Volume One: Essays from Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Horton Foote, and Jeanette Walls by Kacey Kowars, Introduction by Kathy L. Murphy

MARCHNothing Is Forgotten: A Novel by Peter Golden
Bonus Books:

Haufraus Honeymoon: Lov,: Language, and other Misadventures in Germany by Beth M. Howard
The Lost Family: A Novel by Jenna Blum
Stand Forever, Yielding Never: The Citadel in the 21st Century by John Warley

APRILConfessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan (I read an ARC and can’t wait for this to come out. It’s awesome!)
Bonus Books:

Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton
Workin’ Our Way Home: The Incredible True Story of a Homeless Ex-Con and a Grieving Millionaire Thrown Together To Save Each Other by Ron Hall
The Fighter: A Novel by Michael Farris Smith

MAYBecoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry
Bonus Books:

Ordinary Magic: Promises I Kept to My Mother Through Life, Illness, and a Very Long Walk On The Camino De Santiago by Cameron Powell
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King
The Unmade World by Steve Yarbrough

JUNEThe Glovemaker: A Novel by Ann Weisgarber
Bonus Books:

Beach Calling: A Devotional Journal of the Middle Years and Beyond by Missy Buchanan
How We Came to Be by Johnnie Bernhard
The Secrets of the Cormandel House by Jennifer Mueller

JULYThe Exile: A Novel by Gregory Erich Phillips
Bonus Books:

The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman
The Curiosities by Susan Gloss
Art Matters: Because Imagination Can Change the World by Neil Gaiman

AUGUSTThe Beautiful Strangers by Camille Di Maio
Bonus Books:

The Way of Beauty by Camille Di Maio
The Promise Between Us by Barbara Claypole White
How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir of Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery

SEPTEMBERUnsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
Bonus Books:

Two Minus One: A Memoir by Kathryn Taylor
Shoe Burnin’ Season: A Womanifesto by R.P. Saffire a.k.a. Suzanne Hudson
Countenance by Joy Ross Davis
A Promise Given: A Henrietta and Inspector Howell Novel by Michelle Cox

OCTOBERWhen The Men Were Gone: A Novel by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Bonus Books:

Warrior’s Code 001: 7 Vital Steps to Resiliency by Mark E. Green with Echo Montgomery Garrett
Waffle House Rules by Joe Formichella
A World of Hurt and Dead and Buried (Wilkie John Western Series) by Tim Bryant

NOVEMBERThe Widows: A Novel by Jess Montgomery
Bonus Books:

Life in Lyrics by Connor Garrett
Red Mountain and Red Mountain Rising by Boo Walker
Steal Away Home by Billy Coffey

DECEMBERThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
Bonus Books:

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
The Lost Words by Robert McFarland

Congratulations, Who Are You Again?

IMG_5884Writing from Seagrove Beach, Florida this Thanksgiving weekend feels like writing from home. I’m staying in the location where I spent several month-long writing retreats several years ago working on my novel CHERRY BOMB. It’s also where my family has shared several wonderful vacations, and where our daughter was married in 2011. Right here on this gorgeous white sandy piece of heaven. And now I feel like Seagrove Beach is once again the venue for something important in my life—possibly an awakening to where I am in the pursuit of my dream of being a “successful” author. And how did I get here? By reading Harrison Scott Key’s wonderful new memoir, CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

Harrison and I met at the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where he won an award for an essay he submitted. The essay, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir,” was published in Creative Nonfiction Journal in 2015, and Harrison allowed me to reprint it in the anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, which came out this past May. He was on a panel with me for the anthology at the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Visiting

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September.

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September. Standing: Jonathan Haupt, Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry, Harrison Scott Key. Seated: Cassandra King, Susan Cushman

Author event in Blufton, South Carolina, in September. Our other common thread is that we have both lived in Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. And one more common thread is that he now lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he teaches at SCAD (Southern College of Art and Design), which was the setting for much of my novel CHERRY BOMB, for which he wrote a generous blurb. It was fun catching up with Harrison when he gave a talk about his new book at Novel bookstore in Memphis recently.

I loved Harrison’s first book, THE WORLD’S LARGEST MAN, so I was expecting to love this one, too. But I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it, as a writer and as a wounded human, that I would decide that it’s my FAVORITE READ OF 2018. After several failed attempts at writing a memoir about my own sad childhood, sexual abuse, and ongoing healing, I gave up and let my truth feed my novel CHERRY BOMB (2017). Harrison didn’t chicken out, on either of his books. This is creative nonfiction at its best – telling true stories with all the elements of great fiction. Raw. Honest. His words cause me to reconsider whether my own dream has already come true, or if it is (hopefully) still a work in progress:

“My dream came true, it did: I can access the light inside me, what little there is . . . for a book, like any work of art, helps you find a bit of your own light, and my light is silly, and my light is sad, and on good days, my light is true, and I can shine it now….”

All of us—not only writers and artists and musicians, but also those who teach, heal, build things, design things, and even sell things—need to find the light inside us. And finding that light can help us heal. It can help us fill the holes we all have inside us:

“A story is an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and what makes it so very hard for the writer is that when you start to write, you don’t necessarily know the nature of the treasure or even what the map looks like. All you need is a human with an empty place inside them they’re hoping to fill. That’s what a story is. We turn the page because we all have the hole in us, too, and we’re all trying to fill it, and we’re hoping the story will give us some ideas about how to do that.”

We’re also hoping that a book—or even a good short story or essay and especially maybe a good poem—will help us better understand ourselves and our world. As Harrison says:

“Hadn’t I written my book to lay bare the complexity of a family I’d never fully understood, and who, with every story, every remembered moment, showed itself to be more original and full of love and truth and pain than I’d thought possible? Isn’t that why you tell stories, to understand the thing you are telling?”

Yes, and no. This is something I’m just beginning to learn in my own writing, so I was on the edge of my seat as I read on:

“A book is not a report of something that happened in the past, whether that past is real or imagined: The book is the thing that happened. The writing is the action. The art is the knowing. Which is why you cannot write what you know. You can only really write what you want to know…. You paint a painting to see what the painting will look like. If you knew before you started, why would you need to paint it?”

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

If we heed Harrison’s words here, we (writers) will avoid the common mistake of “telling” our readers what happened or is happening, simply reporting on the events of the story, and we’ll begin to “show” them—and ourselves—what it is we are coming to understand as we write.

As a writer, I could relate to much of Harrison’s writing and publishing and book tour stories, and I think his journey to find his dream can apply to people in all walks of life. The fact that he writes about the difficult things of everyday life with such amazing humor is icing on the cake. This is a MUST READ for anyone with a dream. Or anyone who needs to have a dream. Which is everyone.

The End of the 2018 Book Tour

If you’re in the Jackson, Mississippi area, mark your (busy holiday) calendars for 5 p.m. on December 18 and drop by Lemuria Bookstore for Dogwood Press Day. I’ll be joining five of my fellow Dogwood Press authors—including publisher Joe Lee— to celebrate our books and offer the opportunity for everyone to buy signed copies to give as Christmas gifts, including my novel CHERRY BOMB.

Dogwood Press Day at Lemuria_Page_2

This will be my 29th and final literary event for 2018. I’ve only got three events scheduled for 2019 so far, but I’m hoping to have publishing news for a new book soon. Meanwhile, it’s BIC (Butt In Chair) time again. As the marketing winds down, the writing needs to wind up! I’m doing lots of reading now and listening for the muse to help me hone in on a topic for my next book. Stay tuned! And thanks, always, for reading!

Dogwood Press Day at Lemuria_Page_1

 

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!

4 books 2

Why I’m NOT Writing . . . .

I haven’t written a blog post since October 3. This is actually the longest I’ve gone without blogging since my car wreck back in 2013. I’d love to say it’s because I’m engrossed in drafting a best-selling novel or even an essay or short story, but I’m actually not writing. At all. In today’s publishing culture, writers have to multi-task—marketing is a big part of the picture, and I actually enjoy that part. And although I’ve called myself a full-time writer since about 2006 (and since that time I’ve published four books and over a dozen essays in four anthologies and numerous journals and magazines) I’m still a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a Godmother, a neighbor, and a friend. So what have I been doing while I’m not writing? Here’s a glimpse into this writer’s non-writing life.

That's Rebecca Wells, lower left with blonde hair speaking to our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

 

Book Tour and Writing Workshops

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Since May I’ve had 14 appearances at 8 bookstores, 2 book festivals, 2 writers conferences, and 2 special events, all for Southern Writers on Writing, the anthology I edited that was published in May by University Press of Mississippi. I love this part of the job—especially connecting with readers and getting to hang out with other writers. On October 27 I’ll be leading a one-day writing workshop at Novel books here in Memphis. 19 people have registered, and I’m in the process of critiquing the manuscripts they’ve turned in and preparing two craft talks I’ll be giving during the workshop. I’ve posted photos of many of these events here on my blog, and lots of photos on Facebook from this past weekend at the 30th Annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing included Lee Smith, Niles Reddick, and River Jordan. The auditorium at the Nashville Public Library was packed out with over 120 in the audience. A big surprise was seeing Rebecca Wells (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) sitting on the front row asking questions of our panel. And even bigger was her invitation to me to have dinner with her the next day. After the final panel of the day—Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy—Rebecca and I walked down the street from the festival to a new bakery and enjoyed fresh salads and a conversation that I will cherish forever. The Ya-Ya Sisterhood had a huge impact on my life, and it was a gift to have this time with Rebecca. What an incredible woman whom I now count as a friend.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

 

Family & Friends: Visits and Celebrations

In July our daughter Beth visited from Denver with her husband and daughters—our wonderful granddaughters Gabby and Izzy. Then we hosted my best friend from Little Rock—Daphne—and her fiancé Bobby for an engagement party in August. My husband turned 70 on October 6, and his sister, brother-in-law, brother, and sister-in-law came from Atlanta to celebrate with us for a few days. Our oldest son Jonathan is arriving tonight from New Orleans for a couple of days. On Friday our middle son Jason and his wife and daughters—our other wonderful granddaughters Grace and Anna—will be here for a few days. I am so blessed to be able to host and celebrate with friends and family while taking a break from writing!

 

Taking Time for Self Care: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health

God_s_Path_to_Sanity_1024x1024At age 67, I’m learning the importance of self care. Just over a year after my last drink (September 7, 2017) I’m still finding my way to healthy eating habits and trying to move forward in healing from a lifetime eating disorder. Part of the healing involves taking time for exercise every day. I work out on the elliptical machine here in my office, usually a couple of times a day for 15-20 minutes at a time. I go to a massage therapist for deep tissue and myofascial release work every other week, and I’m doing a round of physical therapy right now, which includes about 20-30 minutes of exercises at home in addition to the PT sessions, which are a half-hour drive from my house. Doctor appointments at my age take up some time, as well, with an internist, urologist, cardiologist, orthopedic surgeon, gastroenterologist, dentist, and optometrist on my team. Self care for me also involves spiritual work. In addition to participating in services at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis—where I’ve been a member since 1988—I do spiritual reading and am involved in a small discussion group using the book God’s Path to Sanity: Lessons From Ancient Holy Counselors On How to Have a Sound Mind, by Dee Pennock. I’m also reading Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi, in preparation for our annual women’s retreat at St. John on November 2-3.

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

 

Reading

All writers are avid readers—not only to improve our craft, but to refill our tanks after emptying them on the page with our work. My recent reads include:

Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (I didn’t do a review but I loved this book!)

And my current (secular) read is Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry. I read in many genres—in both fiction and nonfiction—due to my interests as well as to fuel my own writing. And after meeting some new authors at the Southern Festival of Books, I ended up with a few more for my “to read” stack.

Querying Publishers

I’ve got two more books being read by publishers right now, so my fingers are crossed that I’ll get some good news and a publishing contract soon for one or both of these:

Friends of the Library is a collection of linked short stories (being read by one university press and one independent press)

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.Friends of the Library—short story collection (being read by one university press and one small indie press)

Pilgrim Interrupted—personal essay collection (being read by one university press)

If none of these presses offer me a contract, I’ll go back to the query process, looking either for an agent or an independent publisher.

Writing Another Book . . . .

Meanwhile, my “next book” is always in the back of my mind—especially while driving down the highway on book tours. I’ve got several ideas for a novel, but I haven’t fallen in love with any of them yet. Writing a novel is like a marriage—it’s a long-term commitment—so it needs to start with a romance, for me to be willing to dive in. Most of my ideas involve either a famous artist, a work of art, or something related to Alzheimer’s. I seem to return to these familiar themes because, like they say, it feels natural to write what you know.
Thanks for reading. I’ll try not to stay away so long next time!

MY Prince of Scribes

seitz-and-haupt_our-prince-of-scribesOn Sunday I finished reading a wonderful new book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy (University of Georgia Press, September 2018).  Edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, it’s a beautiful collection of reflections on the life and work of my favorite author, who is obviously a favorite with many others. When I heard about the collection, it had already gone to press. And although I didn’t know Pat as well as many of those who contributed essays to this book, I wished I could have joined them. So I will share my own reflections here, at the end of this post. But first I’ll share a few of my favorite quotes from contributing authors. I tagged about 25 “favorites,” but I’ll only share a little over half of them here. I hope these quotes will tease you into buying the book and reading these wonderful essays!

“They connected with Pat through the love of words or food, or through the shared sufferings of childhood or existential questioning”—Nicole Seitz, Editor

“Because of the abuses of his childhood, Pat found it impossible to foster sustained joy in his own success, but he could experience tremendous vicarious bliss in the success of others. Serving as the sage tribal elder in the mentoring of other writers brought Pat a happiness that even international literary fame could not.”—Jonathan Haupt, Editor

“Pat didn’t just survive; he thrived. . . . Boys like us longed for a way to save our fathers from themselves and our families from our fathers. And because that was impossible, boys like us devoted our adult lives to expressing our failures as heroes in the world through aspiring to be heroic in art…. Our wound was not just geography, as Pat once wrote, it was the unique spark of our hearts’ engines, and therefore kept us alive.”—Michael O’Keefe

“The wound we shared was permanent, not something that ever healed completely. We knew we would never be good enough. We didn’t know what bad thing was lurking just ahead of us.”—Cynthia Graubart

“If you are willing to read great books and work your ass off to write down what you are thinking and find your voice, it’s possible to emerge as a writer. To Pat there was no more sacred and worthwhile calling.”—Tim Conroy

“’My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life.’ I must have read that sentence aloud a dozen times. . . . And then I knew. I could just as truthfully assert that my mother’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life. . . . Pat could have allowed the cruelty to harden him, make him mean, make him repeat the sins of his father. But Pat made a conscious decision, I believe, to live a life that stood in total opposition to the violence. He found forgiveness through writing and grace in a life well lived . . . .”—Connie May Fowler

“One painful irony was his recognition that his books had liberated throngs of fellow sufferers—the depressed, the abused, the father haters—not to seek therapy or write books but to share their miseries with Conroy at book signings. This was unwelcome duty for a writer who wasn’t inclined to guide others through their elf-realization. Writing is not group therapy. But such was the price Conroy paid for exposing so much of himself and his family, book after book, as he sought to explain his tortured childhood to himself.”—Kathleen Parker

“He portrayed the South in full—all its contrasting mystery and ugliness, beauty and brine, laid bare—and did so in a way that made it feel accessible to outsiders and refreshing to those of us who live here.”—John Connor Cleveland

“I carried on about how the setting and themes of The Prince of Tides spoke directly to me. Pat smiled and listened as if he hadn’t heard the same thing a million times form other readers. And I found myself confessing hidden pieces of my life. The abuse in the novel was something I understood. ‘Most writers had shitty childhoods,’ he said.”—Michael Morris

“So many writers I know today don’t even address the question. They’re not even God-curious. I still think that’s the difference between a great writer and a merely good writer. Great writers—whether they’re believers or not—are God-haunted. Pat Conroy was God-haunted. Maybe you didn’t know.”—Margaret Evans

“The trauma of his childhood and adolescence could easily have sent him into the abyss. I know that writing about issues evoking his past trauma could be cathartic for Pat, but there was also peril in descending into that past. Blending memory and art was a dangerous dance too…. He took what might have destroyed him and made it beautiful and true…. His art will endure.”—Ron Rash

“’My wound is geography.’ The wound he referred to was tied to his difficult youth and his abusive father. But his themes about surviving a dysfunctional childhood gave me the confidence to write bout subjects I had shied away from in my own work, like my mother’s rape and other personal difficulties.”—Marjory Wentworth

“What I learned from his life and friendship was a kind of theology: Stories and Life are both marvelous and dreadful. I can’t, as a reader or a writer or a human being, shy away from the broken world…. It’s all there together—the noble, the cowardly, the awful, the shining. As it must be I both our writing and our lives.”—Patti Callahan Henry

“Reading Pat, and later knowing him, has been a life-class not on y in how to write but how to live…. To love the South while refusing to accept its failing and shortcomings. To pay forward what cannot possibly be paid back. To write about your family, to love your family. To look directly at all the world’s horror, to face it honestly, but never to turn mean. That’s what knowing Pat and reading Pat taught me, and is teaching me still.”—Mark Powell

And now, if I had been invited to contribute to the collection, what would I have written?

 

Permission to Write

By Susan Cushman

That’s what Pat Conroy gave me. And I’d also like to say here—since this essay isn’t published in the book about Pat—that his wife Cassandra King was also a big part of my inspiration to write. When I met Cassandra at the Southern Festival of Books in 2006—the last year it was held in Memphis—she was talking about her book The Sunday Wife. We talked in person after her panel, and she wrote in the front cover of my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is.” I could write more about Cassandra and her books and what her friendship means to me, but since this reflection is supposed to be about Pat, I’ll get back to him.

I don’t remember what year it was when I first read The Prince of Tides. It was published in 1986 and the movie came out in 1991. I think I actually saw the movie first, and loved it. But when I read the book, I was blown away by two things: Pat’s incredibly beautiful literary prose, and the power of using real life experiences—in his case the abuse from his father—to fuel a novel. To make art from pain.

I had tried to write about my own personal wounds—sexual abuse first from my grandfather when I was four or five, verbal and emotional abuse from my mother for all of my life, and abuse from two different Christian leaders in the 1970s—and so I wrote a memoir. Two, actually. But I finally realized that I wasn’t willing to go public with some of the names and situations involved, so I followed Pat’s example and wrote a novel. It took several years to finish Cherry Bomb, a couple more years dealing with a New York literary agent (with whom I eventually parted ways), finding a publishing home, more editing and finally publishing the novel in August of 2017. It was so satisfying and healing, and I will always be grateful to Pat for inspiring me to do this.

When Beach Music came out in 1995, I devoured it and realized what everyone else already knew: Pat wasn’t a one-hit wonder. So I went back and read The Water is Wide (1972) The Great Santini (1976), and The Lord of Discipline (1980). For some reason I never read The Boo (1970). But all of these books were also full of art borne from suffering, and they are powerfully beautiful. In 2009, I read Pat’s final novel, South of Broad, and it came alive for me on two visits to Charleston, the “Holy city” featured in the book. I think it may be my second favorite of Pat’s books, next to The Prince of Tides. Of course I also loved My Reading Life (2010) and I wept as I read his memoir The Death of Santini (2013), which revealed even more of his tremendously loving and forgiving heart, as he did everything he could to heal his relationship with his father.

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

When I finally got to meet him, in 2010, Pat was speaking at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. He was so warm and genuine in person, and so humble and generous with his time. He even purchased books from some of the (lesser known) authors who were presenting during the weekend and stood in line to have them inscribe the books for him. He donned an apron and helped serve plates for the author dinner one evening. And when he spoke, his love for not only writing but also writers—at whatever stage we were in with our careers—was evident, and blessed me greatly.

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

In May of 2017 I visited Pat’s home in Beaufort, South Carolina, for the first time, just over a year after his death in March of 2016. I was giving a reading at Nevermore Books in Beaufort for an anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Cassandra had contributed an essay to the book and joined me at the bookstore along with two other contributors, and then invited all of us to her house for dinner afterwards. I remember feeling a little awkward as she encouraged me to sit down in the chair at Pat’s writing desk, saying, “Maybe you’ll soak up some of his inspiration.” But I did sit there, as I had sat at his other desk earlier that day—the one that’s part of an exhibit at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I swiveled around to take in the view of Battery Creek, which runs behind their home, and imagined how it might have inspired the beautiful descriptions of his beloved Lowcountry. I had just read A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016) and relished his words that were salvaged from various places that had published them previously. I was putting together another anthology when Pat died—Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018)—and was sad not to have an essay by him in the collection. Cassandra contributed a wonderful essay—“The Ghost of Josiah King,” and I was thrilled to have essays by more writers with ties to Pat’s beloved Lowcountry, like Nicole Seitz and Patti Callahan Henry. I opened the Introduction with these words from A Lowcountry Heart:

“In his book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (published posthumously), the author Pat Conroy says: ‘My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’”’”

Only Pat Conroy could write about the culture of suffering in the South with humor and get away with it. (Okay, so Rick Bragg also did this, and more recently, Harrison Scott Key.) I don’t do humor well, although I did use it some in my memoir about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Because you have to have humor to survive the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

I believe that Pat has received all the messages of love penned by the authors who contributed to Our Prince of Scribes, and that he’s reading my words, even now. So I’ll send a shout out to him as I close this tribute: THANK YOU for giving me permission to write. If I could hear his response, I know he would be saying, “Great love.”

RUSH

Lisa Patton w me at NovelI recently had the pleasure of meeting author Lisa Patton in person, when she spoke at Novel books in Memphis, where she was launching her new novel RUSH. Lisa is a Memphis native, living in Nashville now. And although she went to school at the University of Alabama, she chose to set her story of sorority rush at the University of Mississippi. Next Sunday, September 30, is BID DAY at Ole Miss, so this is a good week to be thinking about what those girls are going through in the final days of rush.
RUSH is set in 2016, so a lot has changed since I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss back in 1969. Reading about all the drama made me wonder how much was exaggerated, and I couldn’t wait to talk with Lisa Patton about this. I’m excited that she agreed to answer a few questions.

Susan:  Hi, Lisa. I loved meeting you at Novel in Memphis at the launch for your new book RUSH. It’s always wonderful to celebrate with fellow Memphis authors! I know you said at the event that you went to Alabama, and yet you chose to set RUSH at Ole Miss. I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss (back in 1969!) and I’m sure much has changed in these almost 50 years, but I’m wondering how much you exaggerated the drama surrounding rush, and even the social milieu. Are there really dorm decorators? And do the moms/alums really get so involved? The way you portrayed Lilith Whitmore, the House Corp President of Alpha Delta Beta (a fictional sorority) reminded me a bit of how Kathryn Stockett portrayed the junior league ladies like Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt in her novel THE HELP.  (I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, so I lived through much of what Stockett wrote about.)

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I'm the second from the right on the second row from the bottom...with the bright yellow hair!

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I’m the second from the right on the second row from the bottom…with the bright yellow hair!

Lisa: I loved meeting you, too, Susan! I’ve heard so many lovely things about you over the years and all I can say is: “It’s about time!” I didn’t exaggerate the rush drama at all. I had a bank of young collegians from not only Ole Miss but other SEC schools that kept me informed on all the current goings on. The mamas turn into Nervous Nellies and yes, the alums are very involved. Getting the story right was paramount; after all rush is one of the most sacred rituals in the South. And yes, there are dorm decorators! I interviewed the most prominent one in Mississippi for over two hours one night. She was incredibly generous with her information.

thI decided to set the novel at Ole Miss over Alabama for three reasons: First, Alabama wins too much ;-0! Some people love to hate The Tide and I couldn’t take a chance on a person not reading my story because of it. Second, as a Memphian I like to set my stories in my beloved hometown, and thirdly, Eli Manning had just been nominated for the Walter Payton Humanitarian of the Year Award and that fit perfectly within the context of my story. Lilith Whitmore, my antagonist, is satirical on purpose to make the point that although we try to cover it up, racism still runs deep. I wanted to use humor, exaggeration, and even ridicule to show that the southern racial divide still influences our decisions, whether we think so or not. Since THE HELP was set in the 60s, Kathryn Stockett didn’t need to use satire to portray Hilly Hollbrook or Elizabeth Leefolt. RUSH is set in modern day. Folks today are not as overt when it comes to racism. We’ve come a long way since the 60s but there’s still a long road to hoe.

Susan: I keep thinking of comparisons to THE HELP, especially with your chapters from the point of view of Miss Pearl—the beloved African American housekeeper at the Alpha Delta Beta house. Did you live in a sorority house at Alabama, and were you aware of similar struggles that the staff there had, regarding the lack of medical insurance and other benefits, for example? What is the situation like for the staff in these sorority houses today? Have the women living in those sorority houses ever actually done something to try to change that, the way Cali Watkins and the other Alpha Delts do in the book?

Lisa: I lived in my sorority house my senior year – third floor, right next to the TV room. We had daybeds in our rooms and slept on one big “sleeping porch.” I’ve often thought about those days and the deep great sleep I once enjoyed. The room was ice cold and we hunkered down under warm comforters. The noise from girls slipping in and out was blocked with the white noise from large fans. What I wouldn’t give to be able to sleep that hard today!

I was not aware of the struggles facing the staff at sorority houses. As much as I hate to admit it, I was a self-absorbed college student. I never once thought about it back then. And the ladies cooked and cleaned for us every day. When I learned about it as an alum (I’m betting most alums have not thought of it either) I was sorry I’d never considered their needs and hoped I could bring awareness by including it in my story. Most sorority and fraternity houses don’t offer staff benefits although some of the houses now outsource their staff for that reason.

Recently, I learned about a young woman at the Tri Delt house at Ole Miss who started a Go Fund Me page for their cook, Mr. Kenny. He had double hip replacement surgery and had to be off work for three months. Last I checked the page has raised $20K toward the $75K goal. That’s a perfect example of RUSH in action. I’m so proud of the young Tri Delt girls for helping Mr. Kenny.

Susan:  I’m also proud of my Tri Delt sisters at Ole Miss for helping Mr. Kenny! Like you, I wasn’t aware of our house staff’s needs at all when I was in school, so it’s encouraging to see this generation stepping up.

In an early scene in RUSH, you show the daughter of Lilith Whitmore getting drunk during the tailgating parties in the grove before the first football game of the season. How much do you think drinking is a problem on campuses like Ole Miss and Alabama today, and what do you think is being done, or needs to be done, to change the social milieu in order to make college a safer place for teenagers and young twenty-somethings?

Lisa: I think drinking is a problem on most college campuses. The drinking age was 18 when we were young so I think some parents are fine with their children drinking after they reach a certain age and tend to look the other way. I’ve heard of several providing a “safe place” like home for their kids and their kid’s friends to drink.  Honestly I don’t know what the answer is. Until fake IDs are controlled and parents stop looking the other way I doubt things will change. I’m not sure that there is an answer.

Susan:  Your earlier books—Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Yankee Doodle Dixie, and Southern as a Second Language—are all humorous. And your stylish humor is evident in RUSH, but you deal with serious topics. Did you set out to write a more serious book this time?

Lisa: Yes, I knew when I tackled the issues of race, equality, and inclusion the book would have to be more serious, but I love humor and I wanted to make sure my book had plenty of it. That’s why I used satire and poked fun at dorm room décor and mother daughter relationships. The most fun I had was writing about Wilda’s 81-year-old mother. I would sit in my room and laugh till tears rolled down my cheeks at the absurdity of her vanity and snobbery. As you well know, writing can be quite lonely. Without adding humor into my stories I would lose my ever-loving mind!

Thanks for taking time during your busy book tour to chat with us, Lisa. I really enjoyed RUSH and am only sorry that I didn’t think of writing it first! (Okay, that’s how I felt about THE HELP, too. And Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS. That’s my excuse for not writing a New York Times best-seller.)

Check out Lisa’s EVENT PAGE to see where you can catch up with her for a reading/signing. I’m looking forward to seeing her again at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where she’s speaking at 12 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.  (And IF YOU GO… be sure and come to my panel at 3 p.m. on Friday, October 12, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, with Lee Smith, River Jordan, and Niles Reddick!)

SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING: Interview and Book Tour Continues!

This week has been busy with WRITING! I just finished the tenth and final story for my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY this week. I’m querying literary agents for this one… fingers crossed!

Path-through-Forest-by-Vanessa-Kauffmann

Path Through Forest by VanessaK Photography

 

Meanwhile I have an interview out TODAY with Allen Mendenhall at SOUTHERN LITERARY REVIEW for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING. You can READ IT HERE

I’m honored to be interviewed by Allen, who is associate dean at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and executive director of the Blackstone & Burke Center. His books include Literature and Liberty (2014), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon (2017), The Southern Philosopher: Collected Essays of John William Corrington (2017) (editor), and Lines from a Southern Lawyer (2017). (Did I mention that he is smart?)

Audience (before the room completely filled!) for my panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at the Mississippi Book Festival

Audience (before the room completely filled!) for my panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at the Mississippi Book Festival

I had a fabulous time at Mississippi’s Literary Lawn Party last Saturday (aka the Mississippi Book Festival) where there were over 140 people in the audience for the panel I moderated with SOUTHERN WRITERS contributors Jim Dees, Neal Walsh, Ralph Eubanks, and John Floyd. It was awesome to see so many wonderful authors and lovers of southern literature on the grounds of the state capitol of my home town, Jackson, Mississippi. Also great to hang out with some of the wonderful staff of University Press of Mississippi, who published SOUTHERN WRITERS! I’ve included a gallery of photos at the end of this post.

Pat Conroy event

 

My book tour continues on September 9 with a panel hosted by the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina. The event is at 3 p.m. on Sunday, September 9, at the Rosary Community Center in Bluffton’s Frazier Park.  Contributors on the panel with me will be Cassandra King, Patti Callahan Henry, Nicole Seitz, and Harrison Scott Key. The program is sponsored in part by a grant from South Carolina Humanities.

That’s all I’ve got today. Enjoy a few photos from the book festival! (For some reason my computer won’t let me post the picture with the wonderful staff of the University Press of Mississippi. I’ll try again later!)

 

This koozie from University Press of Mississippi with the wonderful quote from Will D. Campbell just made my day! (and kept my Diet Cokes cold all day)

This koozie from University Press of Mississippi with the wonderful quote from Will D. Campbell just made my day! (and kept my Diet Cokes cold all day)

Susan w John Evans

With Steve Yates, Marketing Director, University Press of Mississippi

With Steve Yates, Marketing Director, University Press of Mississippi

With long-time friend and mentor Neal Walsh, director of the YOK Shop workshop in Oxford, which I attended for 7 years.

With long-time friend and mentor Neal Walsh, director of the YOK Shop workshop in Oxford, which I attended for 7 years.

With SWW contributor and host of Thacker Mountain Radio, Jim Dees

With SWW contributor and host of Thacker Mountain Radio, Jim Dees

SWW Contributor John Floyd, author of over 1000 published short stories!

SWW Contributor John Floyd, author of over 1000 published short stories!

Michael Farris Smith also has an essay in SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, but he was scheduled for a panel for his novel THE FIGHTER at the festival. We hung out in the author signing tent.

Michael Farris Smith also has an essay in SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, but he was scheduled for a panel for his novel THE FIGHTER at the festival. We hung out in the author signing tent. I love how “regal” and “angelic” he looks here!

With Ann Fisher-Wirth, poet and writer who teaches at Ole Miss

With Ann Fisher-Wirth, poet and writer who teaches at Ole Miss

Hanging out with my author friend Margaret McMullan at the opening session for the festival.

Hanging out with my author friend Margaret McMullan at the opening session for the festival.

 

 

Rebranding Prayer and Mindfulness Revisited

Last night I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up, did some writing on the computer (not a good idea when Church Health Readerone is having trouble sleeping!) and then read for a while. Finally I went back to bed around 3:30 a.m., but my mind was still buzzing. The last time I looked at the clock it was close to 4 a.m. I remember falling asleep with the Jesus Prayer going through my mind and heart. Why didn’t I try that first, before getting on the computer and reading? Why didn’t I think to approach my insomnia and monkey mind with mindfulness?

Earlier in the evening I had gone to a different sort of book event. Two Memphis authors—Suzanne Smith Henley and Greg Graber—discussed their books at the first ever book reading and signing at Church Health Center at Suzannethe Crosstown Concourse. I went because of my friendship with Suzanne, whom I’ve known since 2011 when she attended a creative nonfiction workshop I led at the Fogelman Center on the campus of the University of Memphis. I was also in a writers group with Suzanne for several years, and I was honored to be an early reader for her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New. I did a review of the book here on my blog back in March, and a review on Amazon, Rehab, Heart Attacks, and the Holy Spirit Riding a Harley.” It was fun hearing Suzanne talk about her book again, with her unique perspective on the use of prayer beads and what she called “rebranding prayer.”

GregGreg Graber is the head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, and a mindfulness coach for the Memphis Grizzlies and several other sports teams. He spoke about his book, Slow Your Roll: Mindfulness For Fast Times. Greg also leads mindfulness workshops at the Church Health Center on Saturday mornings. His message about slowing down in this age of smart phones, tablets, and social media is timely and important, and can be incorporated into the lives of people of all faiths.

Suzanne and Greg were introduced by Dr. Scott Morris, founder and CEO of Church Health in Memphis, the largest faith-based healthcare ministry of its type. He’s a physician and a United Methodist pastor. I picked up a copy of the Church Health Reader Scott(Summer 2018, Volume 8, Number 3) while I was at the event, and was interested to read Scott’s article, “The Way of the Pilgrim.” Scott writes about his experience in college and beyond practicing transcendental meditation (TM). He says, “Even though I liked how it calmed my mind, I didn’t feel grounded in anything that was about God.”

He goes on to write about how the Jesus Prayer opened him to a Christian form of mindfulness:

When I first tried the Jesus Prayer with Henri Nouwen, it immediately seemed like TM. I just replaced om with the short prayer…. Years later I picked up a little book—it was only about three inches long—titled The Way of the Pilgrim…. I needed to try something, so I said to myself, ‘Start praying.’

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’

These days we hear less about the Hari Krishnas and TM, but mindfulness and meditation are widespread and have proven health and spiritual benefits. Many people of faith use mindfulness practices for the same reasons I’ve used the Jesus Prayer all these years—to let go of everything that clutters our mind and be fully present in this moment, to be present in prayer, to experience it more clearly, and perhaps to find God waiting there.

There’s also an article in this issue of the Church Health Reader by Tim Stead titled “Mindfulness in the Christian Tradition,” which addresses the differences in the Buddhist approach and the Christian approach.

And another article by advanced practice psychiatric-mental health clinical nurse specialist Jane Slatery, “Will It Really Make Me Feel Better?” It’s about the research on mindfulness and medicine.

Some of these articles are available online (the ones with links) but others are only in the print edition. SUBSCRIBE to the Church Health Reader HERE. I just started my subscription and am looking forward to future issues. Join me?

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