On the Road Again #ILoveWillie

I recently watched an old Willie Nelson movie, “Honeysuckle Rose,” about Willie’s infamous road trips he took with his band. They kept playing his song, “On the Road Again,” and I can’t get it out of my head. I’ll probably be singing it next week when I get on the road again for another leg of my spring book tour. Where to this time?

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Next Tuesday I’ll be headed down to Fairhope, Alabama, where I’ll have a reading/signing at Page & Palette (4 p.m. April 4) for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. My hosts will be my author friends, Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella. I love Fairhope and April will be a beautiful time of the year to be there!

Emma w ASB and customerWednesday I’ll drive from Fairhope to New Orleans for an event at Garden District Book Shop for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (6 p.m. on April 5). I’ll be joined by my hostess, New Orleans resident and contributor to A Second Blooming, Emma Connolly, and two contributors from Jackson, Mississippi—Susan Marquez and NancyKay Wessman. Emma’s essay is about her “second blooming” as a shopkeeper on Magazine Street, where she owns Uptown Needle and Craftworks. Here’s Emma (on the left)  selling a copy of A Second Blooming to one of her customers in the shop. (Can you tell this was during Mardi Gras?)

Thursday I’ll head back up I-55 to Jackson, Mississippi, for another event for A Second Blooming, again at Lemuria (5 p.m. on April 6). I’ll be joined by Jackson residents Susan Marquez and NancyKay Wessman, who will be sharing their stories of second bloomings after loss.

Two weeks from tomorrow I’ll drive up to Dyersburg (Tennessee) for the Dyersburg State Community College Women’s Conference (April 18) where I’ve been invited to speak about my journey as an author. I’ll talk about my writing and publishing career, and have an opportunity to sell copies of both Tangles and Plaques and A Second Blooming. This event usually attracts about 80-100 women from the Dyersburg area, and includes a luncheon and fashion show. I’m so happy to be included!

And that will wrap up my April book tour. Stay tuned next month to hear about the five events I have planned in May, with travels to Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, another event in Oxford (Mississippi), and two local events in the Memphis area. I’ll keep all of these posted on my EVENTS page (just click the link at the top of the home page of my web site) so you’ll know when I’ll be in your area.

I’ll close with a picture of me with the Memphis contributors to A Second Blooming, at our event at Memphis Botanic Garden yesterday. It was a beautiful day and lots of folks came out for the event (we sold 50 books!) and we had a great time. Thanks so much to everyone who came and purchased a book. I hope you LOVE it! And thanks to Chapter 16 for getting a review into the Commercial Appeal yesterday morning, just in time to bring in some more readers.

Susan Cushman, Jen Bradner, Ellen Morris Prewitt, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Suzanne Henley

Susan Cushman, Jen Bradner, Ellen Morris Prewitt, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Suzanne Henley

As always, thanks for reading. I can hear Willie strumming that guitar again….

This Close to Happy

9780374140366_custom-bf6b7b4c35093d0b7d5c541f859ae01e511360bb-s200-c85I just finished reading my 6th book of 2017—This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression by Daphne Merkin. Looking at my list so far this year, I’ve read two novels and four nonfiction books. I’m getting in the mood for some southern fiction next, and have recently gotten interested (again) in Anne Rivers Siddons, probably because of Pat Conroy’s words about her in A Lowcountry Heart. I read a couple of her books many years ago, and now I’m thinking of reading one of her oldest books Heartbreak Hotel (1976), which is about growing up in the South in the 1950s. But I’ve also got a copy of The Girls of August. Maybe I’ll save that one for this summer. But for now, back to This Close to Happy.

Daphne Merkin is an accomplished writer, with regular contributions to The New Yorker, Elle, The New York Times and other publications. Her novel Enchantment won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for best novel on a Jewish Theme, and one of her two collections of essays was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Here’s an excellent review in the New York Times by Andrew Solomon.

And here’s an interview on NPR.

So I won’t write a review here, other than to say that I think this is an amazing book. I’ve read a fair amount of books about mental illness in general and depression in particular. This is one of the best. Merkin not only knows her stuff—from years of therapy and pharmaceutical treatment and detailed research—but she has also lived with this disease her whole life. Growing up in a home where she was abused by a nanny and never received even basic, minimal nurturing from her parents, she suffered clinical depression even as a child, through post-partum times, into young adulthood and middle age. And yet, she is still here. (She writes about suicide a lot in the book.)

One of my favorite quotes:

The opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness, but a state of relative all-right-ness.

There’s so much wisdom in that one sentence. When I’m depressed, I imagine a “high” I’m missing from life, not just a calm “normal,” whatever that might be. And being a writer, I’ve always assumed that I come by my depression honestly, as did Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and a plethora of others. As Merkin says:

It is by now well documented that nonlinear creative types, artists and writers in particular, often suffer form depression; whole books have been devoted to exploring the high incidence of both unipolar depression and bipolar depression in this group. Anywhere you look, there they are, the unhappy poets and painters, drinking or drugging themselves into a stupor….

Daphne Merkin

Daphne Merkin

I can relate. When I’m actively (and successfully) working on a creative project, I experience a bit of a high. But as soon as the project is finished or I’m floundering with what to do next, depression creeps in. What does Merkin say life has to offer at these times?

But perhaps I’ve all along underrated the pull of life itself, slyly offering up its enticements. I tend to give short shrift to these enticements when I’m sinking, but they are very real. They would include but are not limited to the supreme diversion of reading and the gratifications of friendship, the enveloping bond of motherhood and the solace to be found in small pleasures, such as an achy Neil Young son or finding the perfect oversized but not voluminous white shirt.

The things in life that entice me might not be all the same things that pull Merkin back from the edge, although some are similar. She’s not a spiritual person (not even a religious Jew, and doesn’t believe in an after life) like I am, so there’s that. Even at my darkest moments, I would never consider suicide. Instead I cower emotionally at home with bags of potato chips and excessive amounts of vodka or wine. Reading Merkin’s book doesn’t fill me with hope (not her intention, she says) but gives me a feeling of community with others who suffer depression. Mine is extremely mild compared to hers, but she would be the first to tell me that it’s mine, and not to diminish it.

So I give this book five stars. And I hope that Daphne Merkin has found a prolonged state of relative all-rightness. Actually, I’d love to picture her even closer to happy.

Rolling a Joint on the Square in Oxford, Mississippi

rolling a jointSomeone sent me this hilarious sign they saw on Facebook. He sent it because this past Friday night I rolled a joint on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, following my reading of Tangles and Plaques at Square Books. The joint was my left ankle.  I had gone to dinner with a group of folks following the reading (with over 80 in attendance at Square Books!) and was walking back to my car when I missed the edge of a curb and fell. Thankfully I didn’t break a hip or hurt my neck or back or something more serious than my ankle.

And also thankfully it’s not broken. This morning’s x-ray shows some torn ligaments that should heal in a few weeks. Back in 2013 when I broke my other ankle and leg in a car wreck, I had two surgeries, wore a cast, then a walking boot. The walking boot was uncomfortable because Even Upsit made my stride uneven, I didn’t have any safe, flat shoes that were high enough. Now they ‘ve got this cool new thing called an “Even Up” that you put on the bottom of your shoe to make your feet at even heights. What a difference that makes!

I posted lots of pictures on Facebook from the event at Square Books Friday night, and also at Lemuria in Jackson on Saturday, so I’ll only repost one here. It was so much fun seeing several of my Tri Delt sorority sisters in Oxford (including my “big sister” whom I hadn’t seen since my wedding in 1970!) and several high school classmates and other friends and family in Jackson. Great reception at both Mississippi events. Thanks to everyone who helped organize them, and to everyone who came to the readings and bought books! Next event for Tangles and Plaques is a salon in a private home here in Memphis, then on to WordsWorth Books in Little Rock, Arkansas on the 18th. What a ride!

 

Ole Miss Tri Delt sisters: Julia Thornton, Gayle Gresham Henry, Susan Cushman, Jan Champion

Ole Miss Tri Delt sisters at Square Books in Oxford: Julia Thornton, Gayle Gresham Henry, Susan Cushman, Jan Champion

Taking Joyous Note of Each Moment

Pat Conroy and me in 2010.

Pat Conroy and me in 2010.

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of Pat Conroy’s death (March 4, 2016). Pat was my favorite author. I read all his books and saw all the movies based on his books. He was a master of literary fiction and packed a big emotional punch in all his work. Beautifully crafted sentences, paragraphs, and pages that I just kept turning. My favorite of his novels is Prince of Tides, but recently I have loved the collection of his blog posts and presentations in A Lowcountry Heart. Magic. Just magic. We all miss you, Pat!

I love these words from Pat’s Facebook page:

“Why do they not teach you that time is a finger snap and an eye blink, and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it, not wasting a single moment of its swift, breakneck circuit?”

Pat was just 70 when he left us… only four years older than I will be on my birthday next Wednesday. His words make me want to be more alert to life moment by moment.

Pat loved his readers, and spent lots of time with them at book signings, listening to their stories. Last night I had my first reading/signing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, at Burke’s Books in Memphis. Corey and Cheryl Mesler, owners, are dear friends and stalwart supporters of books and authors and readers. Corey is also an accomplished poet and novelist. I tried to remember to ask each person as I signed their books if they had an Alzheimer’s story, or if they were a caregiver. I don’t think I did a very good job of this, but I will try to do better as I continue on my “book tour”… to Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, at 5 p.m. tonight, and Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi, at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

I’ll close with a few photos from last night’s event at Burke’s Books. Have a great weekend everyone!

 

With Corey Mesler, owner of Burke's Books

With Corey Mesler, owner of Burke’s Books

Fr Alex Susan Fr Philip

signing for Pamela

Daphne and Sarah

Susan reading closeup

Tammy Susan Sarah

Susan with Sandy and Bill

Kay with Susan

Mansours

Madeleine, Daphne, Sue, Judy

books

Happy Lent, Mardi Gras, and Five Star Reviews

keep-calm-and-happy-clean-mondayWhile the folks in New Orleans are still celebrating Mardi Gras (today is Lundi Gras and tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, the final day of the Mardi Gras celebration) and Western Christians (mainly Catholics and Protestants) begin Lent the following day with Ash Wednesday, Orthodox Christians (like me) all over the world begin our Lenten journey today, with Clean Monday. We prepared for the launch of this season of spiritual renewal with last night’s service, “Forgiveness Vespers.” At the end of the litany of prayers, everyone present exchanged the kiss of peace, asking one another for forgiveness and responding with “God forgives and I forgive.” As we formed a line around the inside walls of the nave, exchanging hugs with our fellow parishioners, we stood together against enmity, jealousy, anger, pride, and everything else that often keeps us divided. We stood together for love, forgiveness, acceptance, and community. We did this not only for those of us present in the church last night, but for our families, our neighbors, our communities, and the world. It’s a powerful service.

Great Lent is a time for reflection and repentance, of drawing closer to God by removing some of the shackles that keep us away from Him, which is why fasting is part of the ascetic struggle. We also have many extra church services, and redouble our efforts with our personal prayers. All of this can feel overwhelming at times, and it’s often hard for me to approach it with a positive attitude. The fact that it happens as winter is slouching away and spring is arriving doesn’t help. Our non-Orthodox neighbors are outside firing up their grills and the aroma shouts “fun” while we’re fasting from meat. Spring break vacations and other events are scheduled and often conflict with the added church services. It all goes against the grain of our culture. And yet, I choose to participate, although I have in the past called my participation “Lent Lite.”
2009-02-lent-big copyThis year I’m calling my participation “Happy Lent.” I’m choosing to be happy. Matthew 6:17 instructs us to anoint our heads with oil and wash our faces when we are fasting, which pretty much means don’t make a show of it. Don’t look all sad and talk about your self-denial. I know some folks choose to go off social media during Lent, and that’s fine, but don’t tell everyone on Faceback that you’re doing it to be more spiritual. Drawing closer to God shouldn’t make us sad, and certainly shouldn’t cause us to shun the company of others, unless we have need of solitude for a period of time in order to take stock of ourselves. Even as I write these words I realize I can judge others who choose to do this, and that judging is wrong. We each have our own paths and may God bless us all in our struggle.

Happy readingI just started reading two books (because I’m not sure I’m going to continue one of them) that don’t sound like “Happy Lent,” but I guess I’m searching for something. This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, a memoir by Daphne Merkin and The Dark Flood Rises, a novel by Margaret Drabble aren’t spiritual books. But they both talk about aspects of our humanness that I care deeply about—emotional health and care for the aging. I’ll post reviews if I finish either or both of them.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful today that our son was several blocks away from the nightmare that happened near his apartment in New Orleans on Saturday. A drunk driver ran his truck through a crowd at the Krewe of Endymion Mardi Gras parade injuring about thirty people. People who were celebrating life. Thankfully Jon and his friends weren’t close enough to get hurt, but the incident was jarring, so today he’s too concerned to ride his book the short two and a half miles to a friend’s house for a cookout. There are just a lot of crazy and irresponsible people in New Orleans right now, making the celebrations dangerous for those who are just finding some happiness in the festivities. May God protect him and others during these final two days.

indexI’m also thankful today for my first (FIVE STAR!) reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I don’t know the reviewer personally, but she asked for a copy of the book and offered to review it in a couple of newspapers and online. What a nice way to start Lent.

May God help all of us who are choosing to participate in Lent—at whatever level we are able and willing.

The Statue and the Fury

the-statue-and-the-furyI just finished reading my fifth book of 2017—Jim Dees’ wonderful memoir The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails (Nautilus Publishing, 2016).

Jim is perhaps best known as the MC for the radio show, “Thacker Mountain Radio Hour,” (since 2000) which is broadcast live on Thursday nights for about nine months of the year at Off Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. The show features an author reading from a book, a featured musical performance, and the house band. I’ve been to several of these over the years, and I’ve always admired Dees’ humor and professionalism at the helm. So when I heard about his book, I had to have it. He inscribed it for me following the last show I attended, back on November 3 when Cassandra King was the author guest.

Four of the six blurbs on the back cover are from well-known authors who live in Oxford, including New York Times bestselling author Ace Atkins, who called the book “A truly unique reflection on a storied Southern town at a turning point.” And Jack Pendarvis says, “It’s funny, violent, serene and surprising—a living thing, like a tree.” Tom Franklin writes that it’s “a loving look at small-town life, journalism and politics… this is the book I’ve been waiting for.” And Beth Ann Fennelly says it “provides so much entertainment that we might not notice how much we’re learning. This is a thoroughly necessary book.”

Dees hosting the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour

Dees hosting the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour

I’ve spent enough time in Oxford to recognize many of the locals Dees writes about, and I came of age in the turbulent 1960s, so I’m right there with him as he delves into Oxford’s (and Mississippi and the country’s) history of racial unrest. Taking one year—1997—and one event—the controversy over the installation of a statue of William Faulkner outside Town Hall to commemorate his 100th birthday—Dees covers a multitude of famous (and infamous) people’s influence on the life of Oxford. The resulting saga reminds me of Forrest Gump, the way he tells a story within a larger story.

Drawing from his years as a reporter for the Oxford Eagle, Dees has a brilliant journalist’s eye for details, as well as an intuition about people that comes through in his interviews and reflections. I’m thrilled to have him among the 26 contributors to an anthology I’m editing right now—So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 2018). His essay, “Off the Deep End,” is a candid story of learning to overcome fear—first of the high dive, and later of “flinging himself at the universe as a writer.” His voice in the essay is unique and genuine, just as it is in The Statue and the Fury. BUY THIS BOOK AND READ IT!

Time Was Soft There—Literary Gossip and Catnip for Book Junkies

55008Flying to and from Austin (through Atlanta, of course) gave me several extra hours of reading time this weekend, so I finished my third book of 2017:

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer

I had planned to write a book review today until I found a Kirkus Review that pretty much says what I would have said. I’ll add that when I was in Paris last May, I stopped into Shakespeare & Company right after visiting nearby Notre Dame Cathedral. Now I wish I had read this book before visiting the legendary store. I had no idea that people lived inside the store (for free) nor did I know any of the owner’s colorful history. Read the Kirkus Review for a quick summary. I’ll share the closing line here as a teaser:

Literary gossip, and catnip for book junkies.

Susan and JulieWe had a wonderful time in Austin at my first cousin, Julie Johnson’s wedding this weekend. What a beautiful city and surrounding areas—the wedding was held on a deck/patio high up at The Oasis at Lake Travis, with an incredible view of sailboats on the lake (temperatures in the 70s) and later, a windy and cloudy but powerful sunset. My husband and I also loved hanging out with two more of my first cousins (Jimmy and Johnny Jones from Jackson, Mississippi) during the weekend, so, as weddings often are, it was a fun reunion. Johnny remarked that it was great getting together for something other than a funeral, which is the main time we usually see each other! My husband and I had a great time shopping for his first pair of cowboy boots, and a new cowboy hat for me (I collect them from most cities I visit), which we wore to the wedding.

Now I’m back home in Memphis, enjoying editing the essays that are arriving in my inbox for next year’s anthology, So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing. I love my job. Have a great week!

 

me and Bill at sunset at The Oasis

me and Bill at sunset at The Oasis

First cousins: Johnny Jones, me, Jimmy Jones

First cousins: Johnny Jones, me, Jimmy Jones

The bride and groom: Julie and Blake Brice

The bride and groom: Julie and Blake Brice

Julie with her 19-year-old son, Colton, a rodeo-rider.

Julie with her 19-year-old son, Colton, a rodeo-rider.

Time Was Soft There

In the wake of the news of The Booksellers at Laurelwood’s closing in Memphis, I’ve been sad and somewhat in shock, along with many Memphians who care about books. My friends Corey and Cheryl Mesler, owners of Memphis’ oldest independent bookstore, Burke’s, are supporting the efforts to help save the largest indie shop in town. If that surprises you, you don’t understand the very special world of booksellers. They aren’t competitors; they are companions-in-arms in the war for the physical book. They are a special breed of people who understand the importance of the place these shops provide in our lives. (Here’s a fun Reader’s Digest piece with art and anecdotes about bookstores, including Burke’s. Scroll down to the fourth story.)

heywood-hill-bookshop-02-2017-04

This morning I was reading an article in Vanity Fair about Heywood Hill, an 80-year-old bookstore in London. “Little Shop of Hoarders” is a fascinating look into a business that has survived eight decades and most recently the digital invasion. The owners’ creative approach to book selling includes creating private libraries for patrons, and “A Year in Books”—Heywood Hill’s program where subscribers receive a surprise package every month. The booksellers personally choose these titles for more than 700 customers, based on surveys asking for favorite books and authors and genres they don’t like (to avoid those).

Time Was Soft There / Jeremy Mercer
Early in the VF article, a title was mentioned that fascinated me: Time Was Soft There is a memoir by Jeremy Mercer, who worked and lived at the “Beatnik” bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris in the 1990s.  It’s now on my 2017 “to read” list. I love the title, which calls up images of slowing down and browsing a cozy bookstore, surrounded by decades of stories and—at the good shops—knowledgeable booksellers ready to guide your journey. I hope that the good people who work at The Booksellers at Laurelwood will find a new home for their talents in the near future, as we all hold our breath, waiting for a hero to step up and start a new shop.

I Can Sleep When I’m Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southern Festival of Books: A Special Ten-Year Anniversary

SFB_2016This year’s Southern Festival of Books is this weekend in Nashville, Tennessee. I have several friends serving on panels or giving readings, including J. T. Ellison, Karen Harrington, Lee Martin, Jolina Petersheim, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Shellie Tomlinson. I’m also excited that my friends Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson, who will also be guest presenters at a literary salon I’m hosting tomorrow night in our home here in Memphis, will be presenters there this year.

SFB 2006But today I’m remembering festivals past—especially the first one I ever attended, the last year the festival venue was here in Memphis, October 13-15, 2006. Ten years ago tomorrow, my life was changed forever, as I met a number of authors who would become friends and mentors, including Lee Smith, Cassandra King, Jennifer Horne, Wendy Reed, and Beth Ann Fennelly. I wrote about this event in my essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which was published in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press 2012) edited by Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed. Here’s an excerpt:

In October of 2006 I attended the Southern Festival of Books at the Cook Convention Center, just a few minutes from my home in midtown Memphis. The program boasted a few of my favorite authors, especially Cassandra King, whose book, The Sunday Wife, had begun to soften the hard layers with which I had adorned my public persona. Meeting Cassandra, sharing my story with her, and having her write in my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is,” were defining moments for me. I loved her even more after I read her essay, “The Making of a Preacher’s Wife,” in the first volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. She described her struggle—“balancing a Southern Belle, good-little-girl persona with that of an artsy wannabe who smoked cigarettes and dreamed of being a writer.” And she wrote candidly about her years as a minister’s wife, during which she “wrote devotionals and religious poems and church pageants, not out of devotion or true piety, but to please and impress others.” Finally she “went underground” and wrote a novel about a preacher’s wife who questions her life on many levels, stating that “the writing of it was my salvation.”

As I listened to Cassandra and the other women on the panel for All Out of Faith, my heart was beating so loudly in my chest that I was afraid everyone in the room could hear it. On the inside flap of the book’s cover, I read these words: “The South is often considered patriarchal, but as these writers show, Southern culture has always reserved a special place for strong women of passion.” That’s me, I thought. And in the Afterword the book’s editors, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, wrote about how “spirituality is not removed from ordinary life but infuses it,” and about the need to “go inside myself, below the roles I’d taken on as layers.” Yes.

During the festival I also met Lee Smith, who was reading from her latest work, On Agate Hill, and the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, who paints a vivid picture of her own take on womanhood and spirituality in her poetry. She was reading from her latest book of poems, Tender Hooks. My favorite poem in that book is “Waiting For the Heart to Moderate,” in which she describes what it feels like to be “all edges, on tender hooks” at every stage of a woman’s life, and to still feel the music “booming in her breastbone.” I’m much older than Beth Ann, but I still hear that music, and like her, in my own efforts “to free it,” I also worry that I “might do something stupid.” But maybe my middle-aged heart is finally learning to moderate. 

As the festival ended, I found myself thinking, where have these women been all my life? I hurried home with my autographed treasures and poured myself into the strong but tender female wisdom between the pages of their works. I rediscovered Sue Monk Kidd’s writing, especially The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. And while my Orthodox embrace of the Mother of God differs from Kidd’s approach to the “feminine imagery of the Divine,” I benefited greatly from her wisdom concerning Favored Daughters who “carry the wound of feminine inferiority,” trying to make up for it by setting “perfectionist standards . . . a thin body, happy children, an impressive speech, and a perfectly written article.”

Or maybe a perfectly crafted book. Three short months after my encounter with these strong women of faith, I completed a novel…. My current novel-in-progress features three strong women of passion as its protagonists. I don’t know if the writing of it will be my salvation, but it is, at a minimum, an effort towards wholeness.

As the late Madeleine L’Engle said: “Until we have been healed, we do not know what wholeness is: the discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose or write, is an effort towards wholeness. . . . The important thing is to remember that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us and which we must humbly serve, and in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.”

Learning to serve the gift through writing and painting is bringing wondrous newness into my life every day. Once it surfaced in an essay about how anger blocked me from painting icons, and how the beach, a dream, and a soft-rock song helped me get unblocked. At other times that newness has shown up to cheer me on as I embrace the darker aspects of my Mississippi childhood by laying down difficult chapters of my novel-in-progress. Sometimes I feel its presence during the sacrament of confession, when I’ve been up all night facing down my demons as I write, often chasing them with vodka or wine. Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons—themselves a form of life interrupted—is part of my offering to God.

SFB 2012As I read those words and remember that festival from ten years ago this week, I am so thankful for the amazing friends I have found in my writing life. And for the folks who work hard to put on these literary festivals like the Southern Festival of Books. I returned to the festival in 2012 (when it was back in Nashville) to serve on a panel for Circling Faith. These event posters adorn a wall in my office, reminding me of the importance of gathering with fellow writers and readers to celebrate the written word. I’m hoping to participate in several of these in 2017 as I give birth to my first books. Stay tuned as the journey continues.

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