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!

The Help

kind-smart-and-important-film-photo-u1When I read Kathryn’s Stockett’s book, The Help—set in my home town of Jackson, Mississippi—and then watched the movie, with many scenes filmed in Jackson, it was both nostalgic and thought-provoking for me. I loved meeting Kathryn, and actress Octavia Spencer, when they gave a reading at the launch for the book at Lemuria Books in Jackson in 2009. After the event, I spent the night with my best friend from childhood, Jan Connors, and we talked about growing up with “help” in our homes—and even taking them with us on family vacations to do the cooking and cleaning. My family wasn’t wealthy, but in the 1950s and’ 60s, it didn’t cost much to have help.

Lilly Bell in the apron, with another family's maid in Florida on our vacation in 1956.

Lilly Bell in the apron, with another family’s maid in Florida on our vacation in 1956.

Lillie Bell Bunzy (yes, that’s her real name) worked for my family from the time I was about three until she got too old. After she retired, I remember taking Bill—my then fiancé, to meet her in her home in a poor black neighborhood in West Jackson. I remember telling him that she helped raise me, especially when my mother was teaching school. The amount of time I spent with Lillie Bell was evidenced by the dialect I was picking up from her. Fortunately my mother just laughed when I would tell her, “I bes (long e) tired.” I remember as I got older feeling uncomfortable having Lillie Bell call me “Miss Susan” and saying “yes ma’am” to my mother, who was quite a bit younger than her. As the civil rights movement moved onto my radar, my love and respect for Lillie Bell—and other black domestic workers in my friends’ homes—grew. I wondered if I would ever hire “help” in my own home.

I got married in 1970. For about a decade, I cleaned my own house. Well, with the exception of a short period of time during which I hired a friend to clean for me. I was working full time while my husband was in medical school. Finally, around 1980, I hired Bonnie to clean one half day a week for me. She was already working for my mother and my best friend’s mother, and would eventually work at Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports—the business my parents owned from 1982-1997. Bonnie was African American, was an excellent housekeeper (and even did some food prep and ironing for my mother) and my children liked her. But here’s the rub: some people in the cult-like religious group that we were part of didn’t like me having a maid. A few of them actually called me on the carpet for it—saying I was being haughty and acting “like a doctor’s wife” by doing this. Never mind that I was doing a million things for the group at the time, including hosting weekly church services in our home and taking care of the children of other women who were working. I didn’t fire Bonnie.

i-get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-26When we moved to Memphis in 1988, I hired Marty to clean one day a week for us. Marty was about my age, white, and had quit her desk job to clean houses. She felt claustrophobic working in an office all day, and wanted the flexibility of being her own boss. For a while her best friend cleaned with her, and the two of them could make our house sparkle in about two hours. Our kids were about the same age, and Marty and I would often end up chatting over a cup of coffee before or after (or during) her shift cleaning my house. I considered her a friend, and was sorry when she quit cleaning houses to return to the corporate world.

Angie was my next maid. Another white woman, Angie was younger than me and had lots of energy. The only problem I had with her was that she smoked, and sometimes I could smell it inside my house, even though she went outside to smoke. But I put up with it because she was so good at her job. I can’t remember why she quit, but I guess it was time for her to move on.

Sarah came next. She was black, and a little younger than me. Her husband owned a furniture company with his father, and they were hard-working, church-going folks. But here’s what I loved best about Sarah—she was raising two grandchildren, because their mother (her daughter) was in and out of prison for drugs. I would do anything for Sarah. I remember one day when I found her in the kitchen crying, looking at a piece of paper with some legal mumbo jumbo on it. I asked what was wrong, and she handed met the paper and asked me to read it to her. The paper was about her impending adoption of her grandchildren. She was embarrassed that she had never learned to read. There were times when she needed an advance on her paycheck (which I was happy to give her) and a couple of times when I gifted her with “bonuses” because she couldn’t afford her glasses or other essentials. She was working for us when our oldest son deployed to Iraq with the Army, and I remember her telling me every week that she was praying for him. She eventually had to take a long leave of absence due to illness, and I had to hire someone else.

That’s when I had a stroke of good luck in finding my current housekeeper, Agnes. Agnes is from Poland, where she got her college degree, but when she moved to the U.S. it didn’t transfer and she couldn’t afford to go back to school. So she started cleaning houses, and she is extraordinary at it. She also works part time at a sewing center where she does beautiful machine embroidery. Oh, and here’s a bonus: her husband (who works for an HVAC company full time) will come and do anything we need around the house—from repairs to building shelves. Sometimes Agnes will be here cleaning and will notice something that needs attention and she will say, “I’ll see when Greg can come and work on that.” And now Agnes’s younger sister Paula has arrived from Poland and is living with her and helping her clean houses while working on getting into the University of Memphis. These are such good people, and I’m so blessed to have them in my life.

I remember when one of my Goddaughters and her family went to Honduras about sixteen years ago as missionaries. When they got there, they were encouraged to hire a native woman to clean and cook for them. Katherine felt uncomfortable in that role at first, feeling that it seemed elitist, especially in the midst of such poverty. But she was told that it was expected of her—that this was an important way for women in the village to make money to help support their families.

helpers

 

So, at age 67, I have now had “help” cleaning my house as an adult for 38 years, since I was 29 years old. We also have “help” with yard care. And a CPA to do our taxes. And a financial planner. And a lawyer. And a slew of health care professionals to help us as we age—including physicians, a dentist, an optometrist, physical therapists, a physical trainer, and a massage therapist. We are part of a community, and just as people depend upon us for what we have to offer, we depend on others for the “help” they have to offer us. Most days I think the scales are tilted in favor of the help, meaning that we need them more than they need us. And today—just like thirty-something years ago—I don’t care what others think of these choices. If there’s something “haughty” about accepting help, then I guess I’m just a snob.

Don’t Quit Your Daydream

quote and peacockI’m still enjoying the quotes and stand my daughter-in-law See Cushman gave me for Christmas. Recently I selected this quote for the stand (which is right next to a peacock I painted at a shop in Denver a couple of years ago with my daughter, daughter-in-law, and three oldest granddaughters) and I walk past it whenever I leave through our back door: 

Don’t Quit Your Daydream

I Googled the phrase this morning, and discovered:

A Facebook page with inspirational podcasts,

A Nashville Film Festival winner,

And various other sites that use the phrase.

And today’s quote from A Woman’s Book of Inspiration, which was a Christmas gift from my daughter Beth Cushman Davis:

The secret of joy in work is contained in one word—excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.—Pearl S. Buck

As I continue with the first draft of a new book, I’ll be keeping both of these inspirational quotes in mind. They also remind me of the two amazing young women who shared them with me. Beth and See are both inspirations to me, not only because they are the mothers of my four fabulous granddaughters, or because they are beautiful and have successful careers, but because they understand the importance of drawing inspiration from other women as we move forward with our lives. I love you both!

Previous posts on these quotes:

 
Don’t Look Back

Bright Ideas and Inspirational Quotes

Courage and Hunger

Throwback Thursday: Microwave Ovens

51ggf9VBaXL._SL1000_Our GE microwave oven quit working last week. It’s about five years old, and I read in the customer reviews for a similar model that they only last about five to seven years. We have a built-in above-counter shelf that was designed for a fairly large microwave, so I ordered another one. I measured carefully, or so I thought, but when it arrived, it was too deep for the space. I hadn’t allotted for the several inches that the electrical cord and plug takes up in the back. And, the specifications online don’t allow for the curved-out space on the back of the microwave where the fan (?) or other parts are encased. All that to say, we had to pack it up to return it and order a smaller one.

Scan 1Meanwhile, we have a really small one that we used to use in our master bathroom, which was upstairs in a previous house, so we’re using it temporarily. It’s amazing how dependent we’ve become on a microwave oven! This started me thinking back to the early days of our marriage, and trying to remember when we got our first one. This picture is from June 17, 1970. It’s one week after our wedding, and I’m cooking and serving the first meal I ever cooked. Ever. (I was barely 19 years old.) It’s oven-baked chopped-up steak and vegetables of some sort. I remember following the recipe, lots of chopping, baking in one of our new Corningware casseroles, and it coming out really tender and tasty.

Scan 2We didn’t have a table yet, so here’s Bill eating on our TV trays. And of course, we didn’t have a microwave. Although they were available for use in homes starting in 1967. But I can’t remember when we got our first one. Probably a few years later, when the prices began to come down.

I was discussing this with a friend today who quit using hers ten years ago, due to the warnings about possible health hazards. I also remember a discussion from about ten years ago with a woman who is a gourmet cook and doesn’t have or like microwaves. I’ve read about how they destroy so much of the nutritional value of the foods and other health issues, but I’m not ready to part with mine. And I don’t really “cook” a lot in it… other than to steam frozen vegetables. Mainly we re-heat leftovers in it, and we do that quite a bit.
So, do you use a microwave? How often and for actual cooking or just re-heating? It’s always fun to hear from readers… here or on Facebook.

Happy Throwback Thursday!

0 Meetings in 90 Days—My Final Post of 2017

90 in 90I had planned to post this on December 8, but I decided to sit on it for awhile, just to be sure I wanted to go public with it. Having returned from a wonderful Christmas visit with kids and grands in Colorado, and now as I prepare for our (almost) annual New Year’s Day/St. Basil’s Day party on Monday, I have decided that I want to share this important part of “my story.” This clarity came to me yesterday as I was checking out at the liquor store, where I purchased three bottles of liquor for “Mississippi Bourbon Punch,” a hit at many of our parties, and 8 bottles of wine. I realized that although I will be drinking sparkling water as I enjoy the afternoon and evening with friends, watching the bowl games and playing board games on the breakfast table, I won’t be “missing out” by abstaining from the (delicious) bourbon punch and wine. I didn’t know I would feel this way back on September 8, when I made a life-changing decision. So, here’s the post I wrote 90 days later….

0 Meetings in 90 Days—December 8, 2017

I’ve considered quitting drinking for a number of years, and I even visited an AA meeting once, about ten years ago. I read a good bit of their literature, and as happy as I am for the millions of people it has helped, it has never resonated with me personally. So, today I’m sharing a different approach that I discovered a few months ago. Why today? Well, if I was in AA, today I would be getting my 90-day “chip.” My last drink was on September 8.

AA encourages people to go to “90 meetings in 90 days” when they first quit drinking—either on their own or in a treatment center. I understand their reasons—those first three months can be tough, and people need support. It’s just that my support has come from other sources. I’d like to share a little bit about those sources, beginning with a book.

This Naked Mind coverI don’t remember how I heard about Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, and Change Your Life.(Check out the reviews on Goodreads for responses from more readers.) I read This Naked Mind over one weekend (September 8-10) and made the decision to quit drinking before I even finished the book. This is the first time I’ve ever made this decision, although I’ve thought about it for many years, being concerned about the effect alcohol was having on my body and mind. But every time I considered it, I couldn’t imagine dealing with anxiety, stress, physical pain, and even social events without it. And now—90 days in—I’ve never been more hopeful about my life and my health.

There’s not one word about God or faith in this book—it’s strictly scientific and anecdotal. But I prayed fervently as I read, and I continue to pray every day for God’s grace to continue the journey. It’s been nothing short of amazing so far. Sure, there have been times (almost daily) when I’ve craved a drink, but by God’s grace I’ve been able to remind myself that (1) one drink is never enough and (2) any amount of alcohol is bad for me. You might not agree with that last statement, and I have no desire to argue or convince, but if you’re curious, Grace’s book has over 250 endnotes, many citing academic/medical/scientific sources to back up her mission, which she states clearly near the end of the book:

My mission, the mission of This Naked Mind, is to change how our society views alcohol, to expose the truth and to provide tools to change our direction.

Grace believes that alcohol is bad for everyone, not just for people who have or have had “problems” with it. Her view is that the alcohol is the problem, and that’s it’s bad for everyone. It’s an extremely addictive drug. She even discourages drinking moderately, citing how bad one or two drinks a day is for your health. She’s definitely an anti-alcohol vigilante, spreading her message through her book, websites, workshops, etc.

One thing that struck me as different about Annie Grace’s approach than any I had read before is that she blames the drink, not the drinker. Her tone throughout the book is positive, hopeful, and non judgmental. Her own story is woven through the narrative, which gives it a strong, personal message.

So, what does Grace mean by “the naked mind”? In Chapter 1 she says:

Did you know your unconscious mind is responsible for your desires?… Unconscious learning happens automatically and unintentionally through experiences, observations, condition, and practice. We’ve been conditioned to believe we enjoy drinking. We think it enhances our social life and relieves boredom and stress. We believe these things below our conscious awareness. This is why, even after we consciously acknowledge that alcohol takes more than it gives, we retain the desire to drink.

She explains in much detail, which I won’t do here, how stressful it is when our conscious and unconscious minds are at war with each other, which she calls “cognitive dissonance.” And then she says:

Your opinions about alcohol and your desire to drink spring from the lifelong mental conditioning of your unconscious mind…. The goal of This Naked Mind is to reverse the conditioning in your unconscious mind by educating your conscious mind…. You can easily and peacefully end the conflict inside your brain.

And somehow, by God’s grace, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 90 days. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? And yet, I am experiencing this right now. Every time my unconscious mind tells me that a drink will help (relieve anxiety, stress, or pain, or enhance pleasure) I choose (with my conscious mind) to believe that it will not help, and I don’t take that drink. Whenever I’m tempted to have “just one,” I remind myself that one is never enough. That over the years I’ve conditioned my body to need more than one drink in order to get the relief or pleasure I’m seeking. And the conflict between my unconscious and conscious mind is lessening every day.

If you’re interested in what Grace has to say about how the alcohol industry markets their products (fascinating and scary) and also the details about the specific ways that alcohol is bad for you, read the book or check out her web site. And for my friends whose lives have been blessed by Alcoholics Anonymous, I hope that I haven’t offended you. I’ve just never been able to accept the theory that people who are addicted to an addictive drug have an incurable disease. As Grace says:

The nebulous idea of an addictive personality allows us to protect our precious alcohol. We focus on the addictive personality, which makes alcohol dangerous for them but not for us. We protect the alcohol and blame the individual. This takes hope away from the alcoholic, encouraging them to believe they are powerless against their personality…. A collection of traits, which can have positive or negative implications for someone’s life, should not be stigmatized and labeled as “addictive.”

I’ll close with a comment from Grace about moderation, which had been my goal before reading her book.  She explains about how dopamine creates tolerance, so that the brain craves more than just one drink. Her words ring so true to me, 90 days in:

Moderation is like an alcohol diet that will continue for the rest of your life.

Instead of struggling with moderation (and poisoning my body in the process) I am choosing to abstain, and I feel better than I have in years.

Bright Ideas and Inspirational Quotes

Beth, Gabby and Susu brave the snow blizzard at the Denver Zoo! (Pops took the picture, and Kevin took 2-year-old Izzy back to the car early.... it was freezing!)

Beth, Gabby and Susu brave the snow blizzard at the Denver Zoo! (Pops took the picture, and Kevin took 2-year-old Izzy back to the car early…. it was freezing!)

Happy 4th Day of Christmas! We got home from Denver last night, after spending five wonderful days with two of our “kids” and all four granddaughters, and the magic of a white Christmas. Being a city girl, it’s always fun for me to see the wildlife near our children’s homes… this time two coyotes and several rabbits. Our days were spent playing games (7 different games with the girls!), watching football, eating (of course!) and catching up on the lives of our kids who live so far away. Every day was special, but a couple of special memories are the night we went to Zoo Lights with our daughter and her family… only to encounter a blizzard as we tried to walk through the beautiful sights!

Guinea Pig Nativity bookAnother special memory was reading A Guinea Pig Nativity with our son’s daughters, and then playing with their Guinea pigs, Snowy, Noah, and Luke. (This is a wonderful little book, even if your kids or grands don’t have Guinea pigs!) Here’s a hilarious You-Tube video of a live Guinea Pig Nativity play!

Snowy and Luke

Snowy and Luke

 

 

 

Pops getting ready to read A Guinea Pig Nativity to Grace and Anna

Pops getting ready to read A Guinea Pig Nativity to Grace and Anna

 

 

My first gift from Jared!

My first gift from Jared!

Oh, and exchanging gifts. I love presents… to give them and to receive them. And to watch our granddaughters spend hours enjoying their new toys and games.

I was blessed to receive several really special things this year, including earrings from Jared, personalized stationery, personalized traveling jewelry case, Echo Dot for my office (we also have them in our bedroom and den), individual fondue mugs (I love chocolate fondue!), and more.

3 gifts

 

My daughter and daughter-in-law both know how much I love quotes. Beth (my daughter) gave me this wonderful book, A Woman’s Book of Inspiration: Quotes of Wisdom and Strength, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi.

Work Hard

 

 

My daughter-in-law See gave me this little “Bright Ideas” set with a wooden stand and a collection of quotes you can change out on the stand. So I’m going to post some of the quotes they sent me from time to time here on my blog. Starting with today.

From “Bright Ideas”:

work hard.

stay humble.

From A Woman’s Book of Inspiration:

Everyone has inside of her a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is! – Anne Frank

I chose these quotes to share today because as I approach the beginning of a new year, I move forward with thankfulness for the good things that happened in 2017 but also with an eagerness to begin something new… a new book, or two! And also to learn to love more, as Anne Frank said. And as Tim McGraw sings:

When those dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride but
Always stay humble and kind

Thanks, always, for reading (even when I’m gone for a week during the holidays!) and remember that I love to hear from you, here or on Facebook or Twitter.

Christmas Day at Beth Cushman Davis and Kevin Davis's lovely new home, with their family and Jason and See Cushman and family.

Christmas Day at Beth Cushman Davis and Kevin Davis’s lovely new home, with their family and Jason and See Cushman and family.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

We’re off to Denver to spend Christmas with two of our three kids and their families (which includes our four granddaughters!) so no time to write a blog post this morning. I’ll just send our Christmas card to all of my readers, and thank you so much for reading, for commenting, for friending me on Facebook and following me on Twitter. I’ll be back next week!

I’d like to mention that it’s also been a banner year for William Cushman, who, among other honors, received the 2017 Inter-American Society of Hypertension Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of scientific contributions that have substantially influenced the field of hypertension across the American continents. He received the award at the group’s meeting in April in Argentina. His achievements were too many to mention on our Christmas card, but I’m so proud of him. You can read more here.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

 

Christmas Card 2017

Christmas card BACK 2017

Christmas Stories Revisited

375247_2623035028980_289609074_n

Me on our spinning wheel with my Chatty Cathy doll, circa 1961.

Three years ago I did a post about Christmas stories, which has links to several entertaining stories and essays. Today I’d like to share a wonderful story you can LISTEN TO HERE from a friend and writer who lives in Alabama, Kerry Madden. “Santa Secrets” is funny but also poignant. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Also Harrison Scott Key’s wonderful story, “The Christmas I Don’t Remember,” published in Savannah Magazine. (Key has an essay in the anthology I edited, Southern Writers on Writing, coming from University Press of Mississippi in May of 2018.)

I think one reason I’ve never written any Christmas stories about my own childhood is because my experiences weren’t all that interesting or unusual or humorous. They weren’t even full of drama, which is kind of amazing, since there was lots of drama in my family throughout the rest of the year. It was as though everyone was their best self for Christmas—I don’t even remember fighting with my brother Mike at Christmas. Here are my favorite memories:

Both my grandmothers (who lost their husbands at a young age) spent Christmas with us. “Mamaw” lived in Meridian, Mississippi, and we were in Jackson, so she would come over and spend a few days with us. “Mama Mary” lived in town, so she would come over on Christmas morning. Having both of them with us made Christmas extra special. I’m remembering them being with us during the 1950s and 1960s especially. (Mama Mary actually lived with us for a few years in the late 1950s.)

My Aunt Barbara Jo and Uncle Dan and their kids, my first cousins Tommy and Amanda, were also a big part of my memories. We did Thanksgiving at their house for many years, but we also visited them at Christmas time (and they were often at our house) where my favorite memory is my Uncle Dan and my father singing “O Holy Night.” Uncle Dan sang tenor in his church choir and Daddy was a baritone. Last night as I watched Brooke Simpson, one of the contestants in the finale on “The Voice,” sing “O Holy Night,” it brought back the memory… and tears to my eyes.

We did Santa Clause until my brother and I were around 7 or 8, I think… and I remember running into the living room to see the (unwrapped) gifts under the tree from Santa. Most of the smaller, wrapped gifts from our parents and others were clothes or small games. But Santa brought things like bicycles, life-size dolls, piano keyboards, and sports equipment. A favorite gift was this whirly-gig thing you sat in, tucked your feet under the seat, and spun around and around like a hamster. The picture at the top of the post is me sitting on it, holding my Chatty Cathy doll, around 1961 or 1962. Of course Mike got bored with it eventually. One day he decided he could make it spin faster if he took a running leap into it, and he missed the seat and cracked his two upper front teeth on the floor. Another time he took it off its frame and road it down the street and crashed at the bottom of the hill. I’m sure the toy wouldn’t pass today’s safety requirements, but we loved it.

Our kids with Omagle car 1985

Our kids with Omagle car 1985

If the spinning-wheel toy (can’t remember what it was called) was the favorite toy of my brother and me, I think that Omagles were probably the favorite childhood toy of our three children. They were giant plastic building pieces and wheels. Our kids made forts and stores and tents, and even this go-cart, which they could ride in. Hours of fun before they had computers and iPads and cell phones. Even before our first video game, Atari. And now Omagles are back! There’s an Omagles Facebook page, and you can buy them from Amazon!

When I got married and we began to celebrate Christmas in our own home, especially once our three kids arrived, we started new traditions. One was hiding the Christmas pickle ornament in the tree after the kids went to bed on Christmas eve. They would come running in to find the pickle, and the finder got an extra gift. We continued this tradition even through their young adult years in college, and we’ve given pickle ornaments to our married kids, hoping they will continue the tradition with their own kids.

Susan Bill Xmas Mag Cover

 

Those are just a few memories. I’d love to hear some of yours… please share them in a comment here or on Facebook!

Happy Holidays!

 

’Tis the Season, Y’all!

Johnsons Christmas 1959We just watched three Christmas specials on TV this week, which always adds to my nostalgia for Christmas past. Growing up in a “dysfunctional” (I’m tired of that word, but it fits) family, I always loved holidays. My mother made each of them special—Christmas, Easter, even Halloween and Valentine’s Day. She would decorate the house and cook special treats and for a few days during each holiday season, all would feel right with the world. Even with our family. I know I’ve posted this before, but here’s my favorite Christmas photo—Christmas eve in Jackson, Mississippi, around 1959. I think we had been to church (or maybe Mom and Dad had been to a Christmas eve party?) and everyone but Mom had already changed into our jammies. Today is my brother Mike’s birthday. He died in 2007 (ten years ago, wow) when he was only 58. Memory eternal, Mike!

gift wrap 4A favorite Christmas memory for me is wrapping gifts. Mother would set up a gift-wrapping station—usually a long table—with lots of wonderful paper and ribbon and special crafty items. After watching her work her magic for several years, I was finally given the reins and allowed to wrap all the presents for our family (except for mine, of course). I would play Christmas music on the stereo and make a cup of hot chocolate and immerse myself in the world of gift-wrapping.

gift wrap 1That’s what I’ve been doing this week. My creations aren’t as fancy as the ones Mom and I used to make, mainly because I have to mail most of them and big bows don’t survive shipping very well. But I still love choosing paper and ribbons every year—this year I’m into red, black, and white, with lots of reindeer and Santas. And beyond the joy of doing something creative, I love imagining each friend or child or grandchild or Godchild opening their gifts, and it fills me with joy.

xmas cardsYesterday I mailed 8 Christmas gifts to 6 different states. I also mailed 100 Christmas cards—another tradition I treasure. I often address and stamp my cards while watching those Christmas specials on TV, chasing that elusive Christmas atmosphere I am craving. We’ve been empty-nesters for sixteen years (hard to believe our youngest turned 35 yesterday!) and it seems I have to work harder to create that festive spirit without children in the house.

The granddaughters always get books, in addition to a special toy and Christmas jammies.

The granddaughters always get books, in addition to a special toy and Christmas jammies.

And speaking of atmosphere, although I do most of my Christmas shopping online, I do enjoy being in stores at this time of the year—especially festive ones like Pier 1 and Macy’s. I participated whole-heartedly in Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, ignoring the nay-sayers on Facebook who feel that these events tend to overly commercialize Christmas. I think they just make shopping more fun! I’ve only got two more people to shop for, and several more packages to mail before our annual trip to Denver to spend Christmas (hopefully a white one!) with two of our kids and our four granddaughters.

gift wrap 2

 

If it seems that I’m finishing up “early,” that’s intentional. Shipping gets more expensive (and the lines are longer) closer to Christmas. Also, I’ve got six book signings for Cherry Bomb this month (one in Memphis and five in different cities and towns in Mississippi) so I’m pacing myself. Tomorrow I’m off to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to sign books at Books-a-Million, something I’ve never done. Afterwards, I’ll drive to Jackson to spend the night with friends who are hosting a literary salon for me Saturday night. I’ll drive home Sunday in time for a friend’s book reading at Novel in Memphis, and for our neighborhood’s annual Christmas parade and tree-lighting, which happens right in front of our house, which faces “Christmas Tree Park” in Harbor Town. Enjoy the pictures from the park, our house, and a couple of neighbors’ homes at the end of this post.

’Tis the season, y’all! I hope you are enjoying it! Stay tuned for posts of a more spiritual nature, as I write about our church’s annual St. Nicholas play, toys for the MIFA (Memphis Inter Faith Association) Christmas store, and Christmas caroling at a local nursing home.

our tree

our angel

Christmas Tree Park

Martinez house

Walker house

Flight, Qwirkle, Hot Fudge Pie, and the Egg Bowl

Our kids aren’t visiting for Thanksgiving this year so we’re going to have a non-traditional celebration. We’re going out for lunch with friends who are also without their kids this year… to one of my favorite restaurants in Memphis—FLIGHT. It’s downtown, about 5 minutes from our house, has valet parking, wonderful atmosphere, and delicious food. Afterwards the four of us will come back to our house for my homemade hot fudge pie with ice cream, and play Qwirkle. (Great fun—if you haven’t played it, add it to your Christmas gift list!)

Flight_Home_Hero

 

Ole Miss(2)We’ll spend the remains of the day watching the “Egg Bowl” on TV. Go, Landsharks!

I just read through my Thanksgiving posts from the past few years, and also reminisced about my favorite Thanksgivings at my Aunt Barbara Jo and Uncle Dan’s home in Jackson, Mississippi. Barbara Jo’s famous cornbread dressing recipe is in one of the posts from 2014, below.

Thanksgiving and Gluttony (2016)

Dealing With a Weight-Loss Plateau (2015)

The Best Thanksgiving Ever! (2014)

The Best Cornbread Dressing Ever! (2014)

Skipping Thanksgiving (2013)

Thankful People (2011)

Grandchildren, Godchildren, and Thanksgiving (2010)

Thanksgiving (2009)

636468843640325496-112317-Ramsey-EggBowl

I’ll close with a few words about gratitude from a fellow Mississippi author:

“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” – William Faulkner

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