I 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.”
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!
A few years ago I was participating in a series of half-day writing workshops in Oxford, Mississippi, led by Barry Hannah. These were held on Wednesdays during the summer of 2009 (I think) and we met at a bar on the square in Oxford. Barry led the discussion, and he invited several MFA students and grads to join in. I remember one of those Wednesdays during which he pretty much dissed my submission, saying, “Who CARES?” (He might have said who the f*&#* cares.)
Of course my feelings were hurt. And then he explained what he meant. In my essay, I hadn’t given the reader enough reason to CARE about the main character. That doesn’t mean the reader has to love or even like the character—hate is acceptable. But not ambivalence. Whether or not I agreed with him about that particular piece, I took his advice to heart as I continued to write.
And so on this day of the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States, I struggle to come up with anything to say that my readers would CARE to hear. I’m pretty much an a-political person. Or I was, until Donald Trump ran for president. I was more than disturbed that he was taken seriously. And when he won the Republican primary, something shifted within me. I knew I could never vote for him, although I had voted Republican for almost five decades.
And so as the nation prepares for his inauguration, I’m glad to be distracted by a fun trip to Austin, Texas, for a cousin’s wedding. If I were younger and more independent, I might be making a trip to DC this weekend to join the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday. It’s not that I agree with all of their issues, but I strongly protest the inauguration of a president who has such great disrespect for women. Not to mention his strong narcissism. So yes, I CARE.
Whenever I fly, I always say a prayer asking for safe travels as the plane takes off. Today I will also ask for peace and safety during the inauguration today, as well as for the women marching tomorrow. May God bless the United States of America.
This is probably the first time I’ve ever blogged about politics, and maybe it will be the last. And if you’re hoping to hear me plug either candidate, you’ll be disappointed. I’m sure I’m not the only person in America who isn’t excited about our choices in this election. But most everyone I’ve talked to at least knows whom they are going to vote for, even if they’re not very happy about it. Not me.
Before Monday night’s debate, I listened to two friends talk passionately about their candidate for an hour or so, at my request. One exchange took place a number of weeks ago, and another just a few days ago. In each case, I asked these friends to plead their cases—to inform me about the reasons I should vote for Trump or Clinton.
Both of these friends are extremely smart, well-educated, compassionate, loving, and well informed on the economy, world events as they relate to war, health, religion, moral and ethical issues. I love and trust each of them. I wish I could have had them in the room at the same time (neither of them live in Memphis) and let them debate the issues. Instead, I just listened to each of them separately when we were together.
And I listened to the debates on Monday night, through the prism of the things my friends had said about Trump v. Clinton, about Republicans v. Democrats, about two very different visions for America. And if the visions were the only issues, I’d have an easier time making a decision. But then there’s the candidates themselves, neither of whom elicits my trust or my respect. Both of my friends said to me—when I brought up the problems I had with these individuals as persons—that sometimes we have to look beyond the person to the platform, to the programs and ideologies they represent. It’s a tall order. I don’t want to vote against someone. I want to be able to vote for someone.
I have never—and will never—make a political comment on Facebook, because I know that it will immediately elicit mean responses from the other side, no matter which side I support. It’s exhausting and disheartening listening to people condemn those who think differently as being idiots. I can’t remember the last time our country felt whole. My heart is saddened by the divisiveness and the anger.
The only good news about this election is that it will be over soon. And then the real work will begin—the work of healing from the hatred and anger and divisiveness. I hope we can do it, no matter who is at the helm.
As I was saying my prayers last night, I asked God to have mercy on America. And then I thought about a Scripture verse that speaks to my struggle:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.—Philippians 4:8
I will vote in November. But I will probably have to turn my mind and heart to arenas other than politics in order to find things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. To find virtue and things worthy of praise. As a Christian, I believe in the separation of church and state, so I don’t automatically vote for a candidate whose spiritual or moral tenets line up with mine. There are other important factors to consider when thinking about our country—not our church. As Paul Wehner says in his article, “The Political Magic of C. S. Lewis” in the New York Times Sunday Review:
Lewis knew that a faith-informed conscience could advance justice and that Christianity played an enormous part in establishing the concept of natural rights and the dignity of the human person. But he also believed that legislation is not an exact science; that a Christian citizen does not, in the words of Professors Dyer and Watson, “have the authority to represent his or her prudential judgment as required by Christianity”; and that no political party can come close to approximating God’s ideal.
So what did Lewis believe the government is supposed to do?
The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.
Which candidate, which political party, which agenda, which vision for America, can best achieve that goal? I still don’t know, so I’ll continue to pray for wisdom, and for God’s mercy on our country.
My dear friends, Nawar and Reem Mansour gave me a beautiful gift a couple of years ago. It’s a volume of icons of the Mother of God, written by William Hart McNichols, a priest and icon painter who lives in Taos, New Mexico. The icons are accompanied by poems written by Mirabai Starr, who also lives in Taos and leads retreats on the connections between teachings of the mystics, contempolative practice, and social action. (You can watch Mirabai reading one of her poems from the book here.) The title of the book (which is also the name of one of the icons inside—the one Mirabai reads is the video) is Mother of God Similar to Fire. The icons and poetry are both breath-taking. (I did a post about the book in February of 2012, here.)
I picked the book up today because I wanted to turn my heart towards the Mother of God in preparation for the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos (Mother of God) into the Temple, which Orthodox Christians celebrate on November 21. We will have Vespers for the feast at St. John Orthodox Church in midtown Memphis tonight and Liturgy tomorrow morning at 10 a.m.
Back to the book. It’s no coincidence that the gift-givers (the Mansours) are from Syria (Nawar) and Iraq (Reem). They know firsthand the horrors of the wars in the Middle East. And so the poems/prayers in the book have even more meaning.
As Americans argue over whether or not to let Syrian refugees into our country, I pray to “Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations” with the words of the poet: (excerpts only as I do not have permission to reprint the entire poem)
Holy Mother of all people,
erase the lines we have drawn to separate us,
nation from nation,
tribe against tribe.
Melt our frozen hearts….
Safe in your embrace,
how could we hold onto any concept of “other”?
…that your message of peace and justice
may penetrate the troubled minds of all leaders….
And then I turn to the “Mother of God, She Who Hears the Cries of the World”:
Mother of Mercy,
the cries of the world keep me awake at night….
Give me the courage to follow the crumbs of heartbreak
all the way home to the place where I can be of real service.
I pray these prayers not only for myself, but for our leaders who have the power to make decisions that affect thousands, if not millions, of lives. I ask the Mother of God to give me—and those leaders—courage. Because isn’t it fear that pushes us to shut our borders to those who are escaping from the terrorists?
How will we answer when God says to us, “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in….” (Matthew 25:43)?
Last night I watched the final night of the Republican National Convention. Just as I will also watch the Democratic National Convention next week. My dad was a delegate (from Mississippi) 52 years ago to the 1960 Republican National Convention in Chicago. (The video is kind of Mad Men-ish, with all the ladies in their pearls and the men smoking cigarettes, don’t you think?) I guess I’m a moderate, but I have good friends on both sides of the aisle. I hope to keep it that way.
I’m not even going to comment on the Convention here, except for the final event of the evening—the Benediction, given by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, says that the cardinal’s appearance is purely nonpartisan:
“It’s not an endorsement. It’s as a priest going to pray.”
I like that.
His prayer was my favorite part of the evening. It reminded me to put first things first. (And you gotta love this woman’s hat!)
Join him in prayer, if you are so inclined. Only takes 4 minutes.
I’ll leave you with a little “American graffiti.”
There are three new names on my prayer list—(left to right in photo) Maria, Yekaterina and Nadezhda—three members of the Russian punk band, “Pussy Riot.” I don’t know these young women personally, but after reading their “closing statements” before being sentenced to two years in a Russian jail, I decided the best thing I could do for them was to pray. And not necessarily for their salvation. I’m not judging these women for their acts—it’s too damn hard to sort it all out—but I fear for their safety in a Russian prison, and I pray for their freedom. And for their actions to bring about positive changes in their nation and throughout the world.
Another name I need to add to that prayer list—and I confess it’s difficult for me to do so—is that of Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior clergyman of the Orthodox Church in Russia. In a recent article in Time Magazine, “The Priest Who Beat Pussy Riot: The Orthodox Point Man with the Kremlin,” Simon Shuster says this about Chaplin:
“In 2010, while campaigning for a nationwide ‘dress code,’ he proclaimed that women who wear revealing outfits are guilty of inciting rape. He later lobbied for legislation to ban Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita and suggested that all Russian intellectuals should be condemned for the ‘sin of Russophobia.’”
And in the same article in Time:
“Chaplin, who heads the Orthodox Church’s department for relations with society, was one of the leading cheerleaders for the prosecution from the start. In April, about a month after the Pussy Riot members were arrested, he said the group represented a campaign of ‘literally satanic rage’ that the Russian opposition movement had unleashed against the church. He called on all believers to fight this ‘heresy,’ including through the use of force, ‘so that there be no more temptation to equate Christianity with pacifism.’”
Two weeks ago today I posted the first news I had seen about Pussy Riot: “Pussy Riot in Moscow.” When I linked to the post on Facebook, a heated conversation ensued, which is now up to 38 comments.
As I read those comments today, words that come to mind are, “We didn’t start the fire.” (“We” meaning Pussy Riot and those who are in sympathy with their protest.)
I dislike how responses to Pussy Riot’s actions seem to line up on “sides”—like so much else in our culture that divides us. And so the comment I appreciated the most on that Facebook post came from a young friend, Mary Elizabeth Phillips:
“Susan, thank you for this. Honestly, most of the Orthodox folks’ reactions to this event that I have seen have only served to remind me of why I’m not Orthodox anymore. I am relieved and thankful that there are Orthodox people like you who can foster fruitful conversation about this protest without immediately declaring it to be evil and blasphemous. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
And this one, from another young friend (and excellent musician/artist) Tim Stanek:
“What these ladies are doing here is unprecedented. …”to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture” is a fantastic plan to catalyze massive social change. The media is absolutely key to any massive social change. It’s been said that he who controls the presses controls the people, but Pussy Riot is playing the game and winning from the outside. Way to go!!!”
And also these words from my friend and fellow parishioner at St. John Orthodox Church, (who is also a musician) David Twombly:
“Susan, thank you for this post and also for the recommendation of the Orthodoxy and Culture synchroblog. I found Deacon Steven Hayes’s insights in the latter to be especially helpful for me, especially given his own experience of being charged with ‘profaning’ the Church in his youth.”
Isn’t it interesting how artists, writers and musicians seem to have a somewhat similar take on these events? And how society—and especially totalitarian governments—try to keep us quiet? I’m reminded of the late Madeleine L’Engle’s words:
“The first people that a dictator puts in jail are the writers and the teachers because these are the people who have vocabulary, who can see injustice and can express what they feel about it. Artists are dangerous people because they are called to work with human clay, with the heart and the soul. So to protect itself, society has had to pretend that either art is unimportant or that it is simple…. When Hugh and I went on a trip to Russia I almost didn’t get a visa because our travel agent put down my occupation as writer. Writers think. Writers ask questions. Writers are dangerous.”
Two Orthodox women who are published authors have weighed in on Pussy Riot’s actions in their blogs.
In “History, Blasphemy and Russia” Frederica Mathewes-Green says:
“These women could use their talents to gather and tell the stories of those who lived through the bad times, and the stories of those who did not make it through. That would be something we could all agree on—a project that could bring healing and understanding, and strengthen memory against future abuse.”
“This is the greatest irony of all, the fact that the girls’ protest against non-critical thinkers and the suppression of thought is being used by left and right to suppress critical thought.”
Well said, Ms. L’Engle, Lily Parascheva, Mary Elizabeth, Tim, David… and Billy Joel. I’d love to hear from my readers on this subject. I know it’s dangerous, but please speak up.