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.

Blogger’s Block

We Can Do It! Rosie the RiveterUgh. I’ve been trying to think of something to blog about for several days… After posting faithfully three times a week for ten years (it was ten years in August) I’ve been struggling with my blog for several months now. Sure, I’m busy with a book tour and finishing up a fourth book project and all that, but writing—the thing I tell myself I live for—just isn’t coming easily these days. (Not only for the blog, but for my next project, which I can’t settle on yet.)

What am I doing instead? Binge-watching “Alias Grace” on Netflix (and wishing I could write like Margaret Atwood, who probably never watches TV), taking my computer to the Apple Store to get some wisdom from the folks at the Genius Bar (actually had a very productive session today), taking book festival posters to Michaels for framing (great Veteran’s day sale on custom framing), and binge-eating mango smoothies, my latest food obsession. So, this afternoon I started thinking about what subjects I used to write about the most on this blog. Here’s what I came up with:

My mother. Who died in May of 2016. I wrote over 60 blog posts about our relationship and her journey with Alzheimer’s between 2007 and 2016, most of which ended up as essays in my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.

Iconography and spirituality/religion. I quit writing icons in 2012, but sometimes I still write blog posts about iconography, especially weeping icons and other aspects of this liturgical art that play a big part in my novel Cherry Bomb. So, I’ll probably still do some posts about icons in the future, but nothing is really grabbing me right now. And as all authors know, it’s much easier to write about something when one either has issues with it or is extremely excited about. Both of those things have been true about my relationship with God and my Church over the years, but I find myself in a calm and content place with both right now, which doesn’t give much fodder for my pen. You’ll be the first to know when either of them does something else to piss me off or something earth-shatteringly wonderful. (Not that the Virgin birth or Jesus’ rising from the dead weren’t big enough deals… and maybe I need to pay more attention to these events’ eternal wonderment.)

Mental health. Especially about sexual abuse, addiction issues (both food and alcohol), and depression. Instead of blogging about these issues lately, I’m finding myself reading more. I’ve just re-read memoirs by Mary Karr and Carolyn Knapp, and some of Joan Didion’s writing (and did you watch that amazing documentary about her on Netflix? In “The Center Will Not Hold,” Didion said, “Novels are often about things you cannot deal with.” True that.) I think what I’m finding as I read the wisdom of others and watch their talents on the screen is that I don’t have much to say right now that’s very important. I thought about blogging about #MeToo but so much has already been written about it that I don’t see a void to fill. But if you’re looking for something good to read about overcoming life’s adversities (and especially abuse and difficult childhoods) read Meg Jay’s article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “The Secrets of Resilience.” Dr. Jay is a clinical psychologist and has a book coming out on Tuesday: Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience. As I think about my own struggles and the horrific stories that are being shared on the media right now in the #MeToo “movement,” I think Dr. Jay’s words are very wise and timely:

Finally, remember the ways you have been courageous and strong. Too often we remember what has gone wrong in life rather than what we did to survive and thrive. Think back on a time when you were challenged and give yourself credit for how you made it through. You may already be more resilient than you think.

Good words to close with. Maybe next week I’ll have more to say here, although I will be traveling again with my book tour on two days and learning to Skype with a book club in Texas one night. Talking about my writing is so much easier than actually writing. Pray for me.

Morning Prayers

iconsIt’s been a couple of years since I abandoned my blog “themes,” but old habits die hard. I often find myself waking up on Mondays thinking it’s “Mental Health Monday”; on Wednesdays wondering about ideas for “Writing on Wednesday”; and on Fridays with “Faith on Friday” on my mind. That’s what happened this morning.

I’ve blogged about my Morning Prayers several times over the past ten years. (Yes, I’ve been blogging for ten years!) Here are a few. (Just click on any that interest you.)

“Holding On To the Ship’s Wreckage”

“Faith on Friday: Wisdom of the Saints”

Faith on Friday: God in the Morning”

“Faith on Friday: Just Do It!”

“Faith on Friday: If I’m Lucky I Pray”

“Mental Health Monday: Keep Calm and Pray”

“Saint Patrick, Morning Prayers, and Writing at the Beach”

Sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions with my morning prayers. But that’s okay. God still hears them and my heart is softened by the process. But this morning—and many recent mornings—I was keenly aware of God’s presence. And also of the Mother of God, to whom I often pray. I always pray for my husband, children, my grandchildren, my Godchildren, our priests at St. John, and a few best friends and their families. Also for special “requests.” And when I have the energy, I pray for the world, and the people who are in such great suffering due to hurricanes and floods and fires and war and threats of war and domestic violence and poverty and….

I also pray for my own personal struggles, which often involve my health, both mental and physical. And personal relationships. The Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, which is part of my routine, continues to bless me, so I’ll close with it this morning.

O Lord, grant that I may greet the coming day in peace.

Help me to rely upon Thy holy will at every moment.

In every hour of the day, reveal Thy will to me.

Bless my association with all who surround me.

Teach me to treat whatever may happen to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Thy will governs all.

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by Thee.

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will.

Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.

“The Address,” “10 Days in a Madhouse,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”

9780525501527I just finished reading Fiona Davis’ wonderful new historic novel The Address. It’s about the Dakota, New York City’s most famous apartment house, built in the 1880s. Since I recently blogged about Authors’ Notes, I was interested to read Davis’ note, in which she explains that the book is “a blend of historical fact and fiction,” and then she went on to share some of the liberties she took, as I did with my Author’s Note in Cherry Bomb.

 

11212929_oriI noticed that one of the books that she used as a reference was Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House. Since Bly and the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum where she went undercover as a journalist in 1887 figured prominently in the book, I watched the movie on Amazon yesterday. Wow. Just wow, what those women endured!

 

And this might sound like I’m a glutton for punishment, but last week I binge-watched Season 1 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” More wow. It was so dark, but I couldn’t quit watching it. I see why it won 8 Emmy awards. I haven’t read the book by Margaret Atwood, which was this summer’s most-read fiction book on Kindle, and now I’m not sure if I want to. I’m sure it’s excellent, but those images of abuse and patriarchal dominance are hard to get out of my head.

 Handmaid's Tale

So why am I reading and watching such dark stories? I’m drawn to the dark. To stories of abuse, addiction, dysfunction. And  I’ve always been attracted to historic fiction, especially when there are strong female protagonists/heroines. Of course The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t historic fiction… more like futuristic/dystopian fiction, which is scarier in many ways. My novel CHERRY BOMB has three strong female characters and several pretty strong minor characters who are also women. And the two novels I’m considering writing will continue to focus on strong women who endure suffering and either find healing or make a difference in their life and the lives of others. I hope I’m up to the task. These writers have set the bar high.

Moments of Happiness

The-Happiness-Project-Book-Review-Gretchen-Rubin

 

I recently ran across Gretchen Rubin’s website, and read about her new book The Four Tendencies.  Then yesterday at the Atlanta airport, we were having lunch inat the Intermezzo Café/Buckhood Books, and right by our table, The Four Tendencies was on a shelf looking at me. After taking her quiz to discover which “tendency” was dominant in my own personality, I was fascinated and subscribed to her daily quotes. This one from September 7 was especially meaningful to me:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

And this one from September 12:

“Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am.”
- Thomas Merton, Journal

Okay, here’s one more from September 13:

“Of all the tasks which are set before man in life, the education and management of his character is the most important, and . . . it is necessary that he should make a calm and careful survey of his own tendencies, unblinded either by the self-deception which conceals errors and magnifies excellences, or by the indiscriminate pessimism which refuses to recognise his powers for good. He must avoid the fatalism which would persuade him that he has no power over his nature, and he must also clearly recognise that this power is not unlimited.”
- William Edward Hartpole Lecky, The Map of Life

If you haven’t discovered Gretchen Rubin yet, maybe you’ll check out her website, books, or subscribe to her daily quotes. As a person who has focused on a lot of darkness in my life, I’m happy to be finding some points of light.

Pilgrim Interrupted

SusanwMoOlympiaI’m putting together a collection of personal essays with the working title, Pilgrim Interrupted. Many of the essays have been previously published, and as I’ve been going through them again, I’ve pulled out a few representative quotes. I’ll share them here, as teasers for what I hope will become my next book. (I’m querying literary agents for this one.) The essays are grouped into six sections: “Icons, Orthodoxy, and Spirituality,” “Writing, Editing, and Publishing,” “Alzheimer’s, Caregiving, Death, and Dying,” “Family and Adoption,” “Place,” and “Mental Health, Addiction, and Sexual Abuse.”

Thirty essays. Four poems. Numerous icons and other pieces of original art. I hope there’s something here for everyone to reflect on, and that my readers will find some measure of joy or inspiration from the journeys I’ve shared. My pilgrimage—mostly in the “Christ-haunted South”—has definitely been interrupted over the decades of my life, but hopefully the prose, poetry, and art that litter the pathway are of some value.

Here are some samples:

“Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons—themselves a form of life interrupted—is part of my offering to God.”—Susan Cushman, from “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow” (published in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, University of Alabama Press, 2012)

“Sometimes I stop and look at the unfinished images with a melancholy longing. The other day I paused before the icon of Christ, fingering a soft sable brush and scanning the jars of pigments on the nearby shelves. There are eggs in the refrigerator, waiting to be broken for Him. Their yolks, themselves a type of life interrupted, are ready to bind the dry pigments and fill my palette with a range of ochres and siennas for the face of Christ. Everything I need is here, waiting for my touch.”—Susan Cushman, from “Blocked” (published in the Santa Fe Writers Project, literary awards finalist, July 2, 2008)

“Sobriety—it’s about more than not being drunk. It’s clear-eyed brush strokes and poetry that knocks your socks off and page-turning prose. It’s Iris Dement singing, “I choose to take my sorrow straight,” and Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks) turning a personal affront into a hit song with, “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.” It’s Mary Chapin Carpenter singing, “forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.”  But it’s also allowing yourself to be human, and turning that broken humanity into something redemptive with every stroke of your pen or brush or keyboard.”—Susan Cushman, from “Blocked” (published in the Santa Fe Writers Project, literary awards finalist, July 2, 2008)

“The distinctive chug chug chug of the wine filling the glass. It’s not really a cork—it’s a rubber wine stopper (from Rabbit) and its phallic shape and texture is tempting. I place it in my mouth and suck the last drops of wine from its surface as I slowly pull it away and push it back into the bottle. The first swallow is always the best, bringing instant gratification, holding promises of relief, of edges softening, jaws relaxing, mind slowing down, dark clouds abating. And sometimes it makes good on those promises, but the relief is only temporary.”—Susan Cushman, from “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day- Search for Everything,” published in The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul (Rivers Edge Media, 2015)

“After binging all day on chips and grilled cheese and sausage biscuit and wine, the self-hatred drives me to my knees once again. But not in prayer. My reflection in the bottom of the toilet bowl—and a fetid memory long ago encoded in my frontal lobe—are enough to trigger my seasoned gag reflex. This ritual takes less than a minute. I puke up most of what I’ve eaten in the past couple of hours. It brings relief, but not without more self-loathing. I cannot, as James Baldwin urged, “vomit the anguish up.”—Susan Cushman, from “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day- Search for Everything,” published in The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul (Rivers Edge Media, 2015)

“It was surreal— like an invasion of the profane into the sacred— and it continued for about forty-five minutes. They would enter to the right of us, in their khaki shorts, fanny packs, and white Keds and cameras (which weren’t allowed inside the cave) and move slowly along the wall where Saint John had once sat, dictating to his scribe, Prochorus. The tour guide alternately pointed to the hole in the wall where the disciple pulled himself up after sitting for hours on end, and the crack in the ceiling where he heard the voice of God. Their mouths formed large, silent “O”s as they crept along, nodding at one another. Then the guide would wave the tourists through the tiny chapel, and they would walk in front of us as they exited.”—from “Pilgrim Interrupted” by Susan Cushman

Dear Diary,

teenager-diary-50sI kept a diary when I was a little girl. It had a little lock and key and I kept it hidden. I remember once when my brother found it and threatened to read it… not sure how I got out of that one. And here I am many decades later with a very public diary. Most of the time I write things here about books, writing, editing, publishing, art, spirituality, etc. But sometimes I write about more personal things like depression, eating, drinking, addiction, and grief. Today is one of those days.

Today’s post is in place of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s… because I’m feeling pretty empty right now. Just running on zero. My three-month book tour is over (until I start back up for Cherry Bomb in about six weeks) and it will be a few weeks until I get the galleys to proof for the anthology I’m editing, so I’m in a lull. I hate lulls. I tend to get a bit stir-crazy if I don’t have a project. I’m even considering starting to clean out the storage bins in the garage.
As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, I had originally planned to use these weeks to get started on a new novel. But after one false start, and reconsidering a novel I started a few years ago and put down, I’m just not feeling inspired about either of those. So I’m “researching” a bit… and reading… and even watching some old movies on TV. And I’m thinking, what on earth do people do when they “retire”? At 66, I feel like I’m just getting started, and yet my vehicle seems to run out of gas more easily lately.

A-writer-never-has-a-vacation-for-a-writer-life-consists-of-either-writing-or-thinking-about-writing

So, if you’re reading this and you have a brilliant idea for my next novel, please send it my way. Especially if you know of a historic heroine I could fictionalize. Or something fascinating in the field of art. (One of the two novel ideas I’m considering involves Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner.) I’m still thinking about Rill, the river gypsy orphan child in Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, and I’m still wishing I had written that book.  She and Mare (my protagonist in Cherry Bomb) could be such good friends.

Meanwhile I’ll try to exercise more, eat and drink less, and get plenty of sleep. And hope to hear some brilliant ideas from my readers!

Life is Hard

Yesterday I attended a funeral for the brother of a young friend who goes to my church. His brother took his own life. Father Phillip Rogers, our pastor at St. John Orthodox Church, gave a wonderful talk at the grave-side burial service. Basically (but with much more eloquence and with tears) he said:

  1. Death is terrible. Whether it happens to a child or an older person, or someone in between, it’s not what God created us for, and we mourn it.
  2. Life is hard. Whether a loved one dies from a physical or mental illness, young or old, often it reflects a struggle to find light in a dark world.
  3. Christ is risen! When Father Phillip said these words, many of us at the service responded, “Indeed, He is risen!” as we often did during the recent Paschal (Easter) season at St. John Orthodox Church.
  4. God loves us. Even more than the family and friends who were present at the burial love their son, brother, or friend who died.

thoughtAnd then my friend Ethan spoke (also eloquently) about his brother—their lives growing up in a rural setting where they enjoyed nature and the beauty of God’s creation. Their mother’s love, and her love for God, which she instilled in them.

There was a slight breeze at Elmwood Cemetery, as I found relief from the early summer heat under the shade of the green tent set up near Erin’s grave. Our pastor’s words (and his tears) also gave relief, to our grief, to our near-despair. But I won’t despair, as I believe Father Phillips’ words that God loves Erin, and has him in his loving embrace.

Life is hard. But Christ is Risen!

An Eternal Present

nursing-home-residents-playing-bingo-1In his post today on his blog, Glory to God For All Things, Father Stephen Freeman writes about his weekly visits with a parishioner who lives in a nursing home. There was much that sounded familiar, similar to my visits with my mother who lived in a nursing home for eight years. The BINGO games. The sameness and monotony of the days, the food, the activities, or lack thereof. I often wonder how I will handle this situation if I find myself a resident in one of these homes some day. I have already begun to ask God to give me grace to bear whatever comes.

And then Father Stephen said something that resonated strongly:

True moral/spiritual progress should be measured more by the ladies in the nursing home. It is in just such a situation that very average citizens, regardless of religious background, are forced into a rather monastic setting. Life is not your own. The routine is as set as the hours of prayer. Everything is focused into the present, or, at most, turned toward an eternal present.

A monastic setting. Depending upon whether or not Alzheimer’s has taken parts of my brain, I can imagine myself entering into the routine as though I was living in a monastery. I feel the need to develop a stronger prayer life as I grow older. To be ready to enter the eternal present.

My husband and I are in Charleston this week, so I’ll let Father Stephen’s post “fill in” for mine today. You can read it here:

“Old Friends”

And now I’m off to have lunch with an “old friend”… Nicole Seitz, an author who lives in Mount Pleasant, just 20 minutes from our hotel here in Charleston. We haven’t seen each other in seven years. Nicole has contributed a wonderful essay to the anthology I’m editing, Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 2018) about the importance of friends to writers. Perfect. Have a great weekend everyone. 

Rituals

 

Mom and me when I was crowned queen of the little league, circa 1961

Mom and me when I was crowned queen of the little league, circa 1961

With Mother’s Day coming, I find myself thinking about happy memories of my mother. I’ve been doing this a good bit this last year, since my mother’s death last May. And this first memory might surprise some of you (who remember that my mother was frequently abusive to me, verbally) but I think you’ll understand once I explain it.

When I was a little girl—probably around seven years old—my mother would come to my room every night to kiss me goodnight. My brother and I had small rooms right next to each other at that point, and I would hear her go into Mike’s room first, and then come to me. I don’t remember us saying prayers or having long conversations at bedtime, but I clearly remember the words she said just before leaving my room every night:

Good night, darling. I love you.

Those exact words. I would close my eyes, wrapped in an emotional security blanket, and go to sleep. No matter how she had treated me during that day, this was what I craved, what I longed for and thankfully received just before sleep. My mother’s blessing. If I heard her say something to Mike after that, I would call her back into my room to say it again. I wanted those words to be the last I heard before sleep. A benediction of sorts.

Fast forward forty years to 1998. My father was dying of cancer, and I spent the final days of his life in my parents’ home in Jackson (we already lived in Memphis) helping Mom with his care. (We also had help from Hospice.) Dad had a lung removed in May of 1997 and lived for fourteen months as a semi-invalid, on oxygen and often in a wheelchair. I would visit them about once a month during that time, and that’s when I observed their rituals. Dad bringing Mom coffee in bed (which he did for me on school mornings when I was in high school); Mom and Dad reading their morning devotionals together; and especially the greeting and response they said to one another every morning:

This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I remember telling my husband about this and we decided to begin this ritual, which we do to this day. Something about that mutual encouragement to acknowledge God and to decide to rejoice often kick-starts my day in a positive way. When my husband is out of town, sometimes we text the message first thing in the morning:

TITDTLHM.

LURABGII.

Are we simply creatures of habit, or is there something more spiritual—perhaps even more ethereal—at work here? I believe that rituals are a big part of why I love the Orthodox Church. There is something comforting about the rituals we find in our church tradition.

6088bb5795d4447b8b1a56bd32e67bc3When our children were young, we would bless them before bed. If my husband was around he would do it, partly because he’s a priest. But as a mother, I often said a blessing before kissing my children goodnight, and made the sign of the cross, touching their forehead, chest, right shoulder and left shoulder. (Or even just signing them in the air in front of their faces.) The intent was to call down God’s blessing on them, yes, but also to give them comfort. My husband does this for me most every night, and also says a special blessing for me whenever I travel. And when we travel together. We get into the car, sometimes set the GPS, and then he says a prayer/blessing for our safe travels.

I remember a priest sharing with me many years ago his habit/ritual of crossing himself in the process of putting on his seatbelt when he got into his car, and saying, “Lord have mercy.”

There is something comforting about the repetitive nature of the liturgy. How many times during each service do we say, “Lord have mercy”? Can we ever say it too much? Why do we love the repetition?

Ths article in Psychology Today says we engage in rituals for several reasons. One is to try to maintain a sense of control and order to our lives. Another is to find meaning and comfort after a loss, like when people pray after a tragedy. In the Orthodox faith, we have specific prayers for the dead at regular intervals after their death, and sometimes special liturgical foods are shared after the prayers. One practice is to read the Psalms for forty days after a loved one dies. I’ve done that many times over the years and I always find comfort and draw closer to God during those days. Part of that is, I’m sure, that I’m more aware of my own mortality, having just buried someone I love, especially when the person is close to my own age or even younger.

reading to my three oldest granddaughters at the beach last month

reading to my three oldest granddaughters at the beach last month

Have you ever noticed how children love to watch the same movie over and over (often on their iPads now) or read the same books over and over? When I first started reading to my granddaughters and noticed this I would think, “Wouldn’t you rather read something new?” But they seem to find comfort in the familiar, and never tire of the same episodes of Paw Patrol or the latest Disney movie or the words and pictures in a favorite book.

As I finish today’s post, I’m thinking about how writing for this blog has become a ritual of sorts. I started the blog ten years ago this August and have posted three times a week—usually Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—for almost every week of that decade. I wake up on those days thinking about what I’m going to write, if I haven’t already written the post earlier and saved it to publish on a certain day. Of course there are days when I can’t think of anything to say, and it bothers me throughout the day until an idea comes to me. Once it’s done, I find myself calmer, like a child whose mother has just kissed her goodnight.

 

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