In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, there’s an interesting question and answer in Dan Ariely’s column, “Ask Ariely.” The column title is “The Two Types of Happiness.”
(Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and is the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight and also the co-founder of BEworks.)
The person who wrote in asked Dan why things that make him immediately happy—like watching basketball or going out drinking—don’t give him a lasting feeling of contentment, while the things that feel more deeply meaningful to him—like his career or writing a book—don’t give him much daily happiness.
I loved this question. It’s a dilemma I face daily if not hourly or minute-by-minute. I’ve been so busy the past few weeks with my book tour that I haven’t had many unscheduled days in which to be able to make these choices, but yesterday afternoon was one of them. My husband was out of town and I had caught up on paperwork and domestic chores. My foot is healing (I fell and tore a ligament in my ankle a couple of weeks ago) so I couldn’t use it as an excuse to watch TV all day and night, but that’s still what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to sit at my computer and work on my new novel.
Ariely addresses my quandary in his column:
Happiness comes in two varieties. The first is the simple type, when we get immediate pleasure from activities such as playing a sport, eating a good meal and so on…. The second type of happiness is more complex and elusive. It comes from a feeling of fulfillment that might not be connected with daily happiness but is more lastingly gratifying.
I thought about his words as I reflected on how “happy” I have been these past few weeks on a book tour for my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Each event—whether in a book store or a private home—has brought much immediate satisfaction. Reading and signing my book and discussing it with an audience makes me happy. But that book didn’t write itself. It didn’t just happen while I was watching TV or out drinking or doing other “fun” things.
So as I sat down to work on my new novel yesterday afternoon, I thought more about something Ariel shard in his column:
The social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues distinguish between happiness and meaning. They see the first as satisfying our needs and wishes in the hear-and-now, the latter as thinking beyond the present to express our deepest values and sense of self. They found, unsurprisingly, that pursing meaning is often associated with increased stress and anxiety.
No wonder I don’t want to sit down and write my next book. What if I can’t do it? What if it isn’t any good? What if….
I often seem to come back to seeking balance in various areas of my life, and maybe this is another one of those situations. Maybe I need to balance the times of “fun” with the times of hard work (as I write this I feel like you are thinking, “Duh, of course!”) in order to experience both happiness and meaning in my life. But Ariely’s advice isn’t about balance; he leans towards the more difficult path:
Simply pursuing the first type of happiness isn’t the way to live; we should aim to bring more of the second type of happiness into our lives, even if it won’t be as much fun every day.
Again, this isn’t rocket science, and it might sound obvious, but I needed this reminder right now.
While 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.”
This 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.
I 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.
I’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.
In Monday’s post I wrote about three seasons of life as I saw them in Petula Clark’s song, “Fill the World With Love,”—the morning, noon, and evening. Yesterday I was talking about this with a friend (who is in her eighties) over coffee at her kitchen table and I said, “You know, I think I may be in the afternoon of my life. Surely I am past the noontime and not yet to the evening.” She agreed and encouraged me that the afternoon of our life holds much that is wonderful.
At home later in the day I found an email from her with a quote from Jung, so I Googled the topic and found this article which reflects on Jung’s wisdom about this season, “Enjoying the Afternoon of Life: Jung on Aging.” There is much wisdom in this article, but I especially like this part:
Jung called the elder years—those from c. age 56 to c. 83—the “afternoon of life,” using the analogy of the passage of the Sun through the sky from morning to night. Youth was “morning,” noon corresponded to mid-life, and night was old age, while the sixth and seventh decades see life energy wane, much as the Sun’s warmth declines as it sinks lower in the sky. Just as we need the full cycle of the Sun to support life, so we are meant to live out the full cycle of human existence, and Jung recognized this. More than just living, Jung urged us to enjoy the “afternoon” of life….
So how are we to enjoy these years, where so many of us “Baby Boomers” find ourselves? I see many people trying to stay young—those with money chasing the elusive fountain of youth with personal trainers, expansive wardrobes, makeup routines (and plastic surgery), and behavior which denies aging. While I want to remain active, I don’t want to compete with younger generations. My body won’t let me, and I want to be content, to actually enjoy the afternoon of my life. But the article at the Jungian site describes a lifestyle I’m not ready to completely embrace:
The interval between age 60 and age 80 is the time most people retire from full-time participation in the work world. Generally in this interval children have grown up, gone off to college and set up their own families. This means there is more leisure, fewer family demands, and minimal restrictions in daily life due to the demands of work. Ambitions and desires tend to decrease, and oldsters often feel relief as they “downsize” into smaller homes, condos or collective living arrangements. There may be relief also in the realization of no longer having to keep up with new technologies.
Since I never had a “career” (I was a stay-at-home mom most of my life, other than running an aerobic dance business and doing some freelance writing) I’m not “retiring” at age 65…. I just had two books published and have two more in the works. I’m just getting started! And yet, I’m doing these things without the restraints of a mother with children still at home, and yes, with more leisure. I can choose what to do with my time, which is a great gift for which I try to remember to thank God daily.
I guess my main “complaint” in the afternoon of my life is the limitations placed on me by my body—although those limitations are mostly my own fault for not taking better care of it. The weight gain, the daily aches and pains (many from the car wreck three years ago), the sagging chin and drooping eyelids, all scream at me and make me yearn for my youth. But do I really want it back, with all its anxieties? No!
Today I will move forward, learning to enjoy the afternoon of my life. I will even allow myself to take a nap when I need one, or read a book or watch a movie in the middle of the day. But I also realize that my privileged leisure comes with a responsibility to others. No longer my mother’s caregiver, and with my grandchildren 2000 miles away, it’s easy to become lazy about reaching out to others. And to feel guilty that I’m not doing more volunteer work. I talked with my octogenerarian friend about these things yesterday, and she encouraged me that I have a gift to offer—my writing—and that in order to do my art, I will need to go inward and not spread myself too thin doing multiple “good deeds.” I’m still thinking about that, and trying to consider my writing as a full time job. That and taking care of my body. I’m so lazy when it comes to exercise, which will greatly help the aches and pains and weight management. So how do I move forward?
Jung felt the older person had the opportunity to re-imagine him or herself. Approaching life with a new sense of freedom and individuality, the oldster can improvise more, with less need for perfection and more boldness in affirming his/her uniqueness. No longer feeling the need to honor the past, no longer needing to honor dysfunctional family patterns, the oldster can even dare to be outrageous, to adopt the persona that feels right, rather than conform to what society expects.
I love what this says about no longer needing to “honor dysfunctional family patterns.” I’ve struggled with issues from the past for 65 years. Many of those issues have fueled my writing, but as I begin a new novel (yes!) I want to move on, to leave those issues in the past, and to “dare to be outrageous,” whatever that might mean for this season of my life. Hopefully I can tell a new story (one that has been percolating for only a few weeks) without those shackles. Here’s to the afternoon of life!
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about my body—specifically about learning to love it and care for it, as one would tend a garden.
In a similar vein, this morning I read Richard Rohr’s daily contemplation, “Stream of Consciousness.” Rohr leads us through a thought process that teaches us to reject bad thoughts (about ourselves) and to be gentle with our souls:
Imagine a river or stream. You’re sitting on the bank of this river, where boats and ships are sailing past. While the stream flows past your inner eye, I ask you to name each one of the “vessels” or thoughts floating by. For example, one of the boats could be called “my anxiety about tomorrow.” Or along comes the ship “objections to my spouse” or “I don’t do that well.” Every judgment that you pass is one of these boats. Take the time to give each one of them a name, and then let it move on.
I do this all the time—I’m a worrier. Always have been. Even as a child worry frequently kept me up at night. I love Rohr’s imagery here… as those “ships” pass through my mind, I can choose to just let them float by. It’s interesting that he says first to give each one a name. Maybe naming our worrisome thoughts can help us let go of them. But it’s also important HOW we do this:
The point is to recognize thoughts and feelings and to say, “That’s not necessary; I don’t need that.” But do it very amiably. If we learn to handle our own souls tenderly and lovingly, then we’ll be able to carry this same loving wisdom into our other relationships.
That’s not necessary. It’s not necessary for me to dwell on my weight gain and my struggles with food. It’s not necessary for me to dwell on issues with family members or friends that might be stressful. What a better approach to those distractions than trying to attack them, or putting ourselves down when we let them overcome us.
I have an appointment with a cardiologist today, because of an irregular EKG at my annual physical a couple of weeks ago. Of course I’ve been worried about it, but this morning’s contemplation is helping me let that ship sail on by. That doesn’t mean I won’t go to the doctor’s office and deal with it. It just means that I won’t let it derail me. It is what it is, and worrying about it won’t help. (Easy words to say… much harder to practice, at least for me.)
You know, I don’t just worry about negative things. I worry about good stuff, too! Like the exciting book tour I’m embarking on in March. Now that the books are getting published and the events are scheduled (both wonderful accomplishments to be proud of and excited about) my “worry wart” (what my dad used to call me) brain wants me to be anxious about those events. What if not many people show up? What if I’m too nervous to do a good job reading and talking about my books? What if I don’t sell enough books at the expensive venue I rented for one event? What if too many people show up in a small bookstore and there’s not room for them to sit? (Wouldn’t that be a wonderful problem?)
Sail on by, worry boats. I’ve got good things to focus on today. And a wonderful soul and body to care for.
Since my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, is coming out soon (release date is January 31!) and I have numerous events at which I’ll be reading and discussing the book in the coming months, I’ve begun preparing for those events a bit. I’ve chosen which excerpts from the book I might like to read at various events, but I’ve also been thinking about how much is NOT included in the book. About the questions I might be asked during discussion times—including questions for which I might not have answers.
To that end, I’ve created a list of books I DID NOT WRITE about Alzheimer’s, which might serve as resources for those wanting to read/learn more. I’m going to print the list off and give out copies at readings. This is a very short list. If you Google the topic, you’ll find dozens, possibly hundreds of other books and articles. And while you might wonder why I have not read more widely on the subject, all I can see is that I was too busy living the very personal journey with my mother.
Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir by Martha Stettinius
The Living End: A Memoir of Forgiving and Forgetting by Robert Leleux
Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me (an illustrated/graphic memoir) by Sarah Leavitt
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (movie starring Julianne Moore) “Alice” is a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s….
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante (New York Times bestseller about a retired orthopedic surgeon suffering from dementia.)
Families Caregiving for an Aging America
Follow this link to purchase the report or download a free (PDF) copy of the report:
The books on my short list aren’t included in other lists I found online, like these (for those who want to read more widely):
My friend Julie Cantrell (who happens to be an award-winning author) has been posting Advent Journal Prompts on Facebook every day since December 1. When I first started trying to participate, I was a bit overwhelmed by the depth of Julie’s words. (She should hang a shingle.) I thought I would write from her daily prompts, but quickly realized it would take an hour or more each day, and I decided not to participate at that level. I have continued to read them every day, though, and even thinking through what I might write has been helpful.
Julie leads us through a journey back to our childhoods, to our happy memories, our sad memories, traumatic events, and victories. She asks us to remember who was at our side during all of these times—who cheered us on, but also who might have been jealous or not supportive at times. This might sound negative, but she goes on to encourage us to not only be thankful for the support we have received in our lives, but also to forgive those who haven’t been supportive, or who have hurt us. Although I’ve already worked through many of the “steps” she is suggesting, I did find it helpful to be reminded of my journey.
I love what Julie wrote on Day 1:
I believe every spirit was brought into this life for a reason. Your life is no accident. You are no mistake. Search your soul. Why has God really brought you here? What is your true purpose in this life? …. And then ask, am I on the right path to achieve that missions? If not, what steps can I take today to reach that goal?
I found this to be extremely helpful. Life offers so many options, including choices that can lead us off the best path for our lives. I’ve definitely strayed from that best path many times in my 65 years, and I’m sure I’ll continue to make some bad choices in the future. But focusing on what my “true purpose” in this life might be really helps.
For some people, their true purpose is revealed to them clearly—through a career, or being a parent, or a caregiver, or living a life that involves helping others. But for those of us who are artists—writers, musicians, painters, etc.—I think it’s harder to be clear about this. Making art can be a solitary pursuit, and it’s easy to feel selfish spending so many hours every week alone with our work. We don’t even have the opportunity to reach out to coworkers and maybe be the light they need in their lives, since we don’t go to an office and we don’t have coworkers. This is probably the thing I miss most about working alone. So I have to consciously reach out to find others with whom to interact. In my younger years I found these people through my children’s parents at school, soccer games, and other activities. As the children grew older and away from me, I found these people more through church activities. In recent years, I’ve found them right outside my door, in my neighbors. And also in my writing community, although we communicate more through emails and Facebook than in person. I am thankful that one of my neighbors is also a writer and has become a close friend. And I am thankful for my writing group that meets monthly, not only to critique one another’s work, but for that interaction we all crave.
In Julie’s Journal Prompt for today (December 7) she asks us to look back at challenges we have survived that we thought we wouldn’t be able to handle. And also:
What accomplishments have you achieved that you once believed were out of your reach?… Write an entry in honor of your beautiful, brave, survivor spirit. Celebrate the fact that you have already endured many of life’s greatest battles….
And then she asks, “What has kept you going through the hard times? When you felt most alone, most unloved, most afraid… what got you through to your next breath? Do you have a name for that? Would you call it God? Why or why not?”
I love that she points us in such a positive direction after a week of pretty heavy soul-searching (Journal Prompts 2-6, which I didn’t write about here). As a survivor of sexual abuse and cancer, and a daily struggler with eating disorders and depression, I can say that although sometimes it is a person—a friend, or my husband, or one of my children—who gets me through each of these hard times, at the end of the day it is God. The God of my childhood, my early adulthood, and now, of this later season of my life.
Thank you, Julie, for guiding us through what can often be a difficult season (Christmas holidays) with your wisdom and kindness. I look forward to continuing the journey.
A few weeks ago I got a comment on my blog that said something like, “It’s great to see older people blogging.” Needless to say, I didn’t allow it to be published on my site. Instead I allowed myself to be slightly offended—why did this person think I am old? Does he know I’m only 65? Does he think 65 is old? Has he seen my picture and thinks I’m a curmudgeonly grandmother-type? Hmmph!
And then yesterday I read Barbara Cawthorne Crafton’s “Almost-Daily eMo” from The Geranium Farm. Although the piece was talking about an image of the Mother of God and Christ with angels, St. Francis was in the corner of the picture, and she focused on his appearance. From that she morphed into why she was having a new picture made of herself, and why we care what someone looks like—or why we want to know what someone looks like.
We really want to know what people look like. Radio announcers—you have a vision of them in your imagination, and it can be disconcerting meeting them in person. Some people only SOUND tall, dark and handsome.
Authors, too: we think we know who they are because we have read their words. We picture them in our minds, and when we see photographs of them, we’re slightly shocked. She sounds so sexy and gorgeous. How can she look like my grandmother?
One answer to this, of course, is that you may have seriously underestimated your grandmother. And the other is that the mind itself is beautiful, and far more potent in its beauty than anything the body can summon. Young people receive this news with minimal interest, but older folks are counting on it.
Yes, I want to be considered sexy and gorgeous, and I think that my grandmother (my mother’s mother) was beautiful, and my mother—who died at 88 this past May—was gorgeous, even as a great-grandmother. I paid good money for a professional photographer to capture my best look for my author photo (which I use as a profile photo on Facebook) and I carefully screen and crop any photos before posting them. I guess I’m pretty vain, but growing up as a woman in the South teaches us to always put our best face forward. (I love the title of Southern author Shellie Rushing Tomlinson’s book, Suck In Your Stomach and Put Some Color On!)
There’s nothing wrong with caring about our physical appearance, so long as we care more about what’s on the inside. And so long as we spend as much time and energy cultivating generative lives—reaching out to others and being active in our creative lives—as we spend on our physical bodies. I think this becomes more prominent in our thinking as we get older, which is one reason I decided to put together the anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (coming from Mercer University Press in March, 2017).
Now that I’ve discovered Crafton’s Almost-Daily eMos, I’ve become a fan of her writing. I just ordered her book, The Courage to Grow Old (Moorehouse Publishing, 2014). As I consider what she might have to share, I glance over at the books on the turntable beside my “reading chair,” and I remember discovering—about this time two years ago—Nicholas Delbanco’s wonderful book, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age. And then I re-read my blog post about the book, “Tribal Elders and a Hopeful Genre,” and I’m delighted to see my progress since then! I was still plugging away on my novel (a six-year work in progress for which I now have a contract pending… more on that soon!) and I hadn’t even conceived of Tangles and Plaques or A Second Blooming, my two books coming out in January and March of 2017! I wrote about my sadness at not having achieved my goal of publishing a book by age 60… and now I’ll have two books by 65. Just barely, as I’ll turn 66 on March 8.
If it sounds like I’m rambling now, that’s because I am. What started as a post about physical appearance has morphed into an emotional outpouring from my “old” soul. So, if the reader who commented that he was glad to see older folks blogging is still reading my blog, please forgive me for not publishing your comment. Send me another comment, and I’ll try to be less defensive. Today this old blogger is feeling thankful to be doing what I love. Thanks for reading!
Just over three years ago I posted this:
I wish I could write something encouraging today about how I’ve overcome those cravings for “more” and have become a disciplined, moderate person. That would make a great fiction story. The truth isn’t as uplifting—my cravings are just as strong as they were three years ago. The only time in my life those cravings left me was a period of several months right after my car wreck, which happened about a week after that blog post. Lying in a hospital bed with a broken neck, leg, and ankle, metal satellite-looking beams sticking out of my leg, my neck in a brace and pain meds and muscle relaxers keeping me afloat, I noticed that I had no appetite. I didn’t crave anything—not carbs, not alcohol, not sweets. Three months later I had lost fifteen pounds without trying, and without exercise. (And six months later I had gained it back.)
Our cravings begin in infancy, but our appetites are simple at first. We just want mother’s milk. Or formula. And our appetites are dictated by physical hunger. But as we get older we are introduced to things that tempt us to cravings that have nothing to do with physical hunger. Sugar. Simple carbs. Salt. Soft drinks. One of the most common “signs” that parents often teach their toddlers—before they can speak—is the sign for “more.”
And so the struggle continues. Yesterday morning I read this wonderful post by Father Stephen Freeman, “To Have More—Pleonexia.” Father Stephen writes about our cravings for more as an addiction, but also as a spiritual issue. And he makes it clear it’s not just about food or drink:
If the desire to have more were limited to material goods, it would, perhaps, be but a bothersome thing. However, the disease of pleonexia is spiritual and infects the whole of our lives. Pleonexia is not a disease that can be isolated to a single area of our lives. We want more of everything: more things, more sex, more food, more entertainment, ad infinitum.
These things I want more of seem to take turns, one or more of them always pushing their way to the front of the line, vying for my attention. The Church fathers talk about food/gluttony being a key passion that can affect the other areas of our lives, and sometimes I find that to be true. If I have the gluttony under control, sometimes I can get a better handle on the bigger issues, like greed, jealousy, anger, and depression. This is why the Church encourages us to fast, a practice I have always struggled with. But as I get older, I’m beginning to believe that it can help with the cravings. Even to keep the Wednesday/Friday fast (no meat, dairy, or alcohol) is a huge effort for me, and I fail at it weekly. But to have an awareness of the discipline and to even make small efforts seems to help.
So, this ends my first week of blogging without the themes, “Mental Health Monday,” “Writing on Wednesday,” and “Faith on Friday,” in several years. It’s funny, but I almost fell into those themes organically this week… creature of habit, I guess. But it did feel good to have the freedom to write about anything on any given day. We’ll see what next week brings. Thanks, always, for reading!
I’m a people person. Well, sort of. I do enjoy my time alone, but it’s almost counter to my personality that I work so many hours every week alone in my office, with no one to talk to.
Imagine this: You work for an insurance company, or you’re a CPA, or maybe you sell advertising or houses, or maybe you’re a lawyer. You go into work every day, but no one else is in the office. It’s just you and your computer and maybe a coffee maker. No one to chat with during breaks. No one to discuss business problems with. No one to share successful moments with. Just when you land that new client or sell that house or solve that client’s legal problems, you turn around in your chair to high-five a colleague, and there’s no one there. That’s what it’s like to be a writer.
So whenever I find the opportunity, I get together with other writers. My monthly critique group is a hugely important venue for not only social interaction with other writers, but also an opportunity to hone my craft, to get feedback on my latest project, and to hopefully help my fellow writers with theirs. That (short) two to two-and-a-half-hour gathering feels like a lifeline for someone who works in isolation. I wrote about this a few years ago in “The Strange Pull of What You Really Love.” (writing about Hemingway)
Just when I need another writer to high-five (because of my recent book deal) here comes Wendy Reed, an author friend who lives in Birmingham, to spend the weekend with me. With my husband out of town, we would have the house to ourselves. Wendy was spending a few hours in a small town in north Mississippi on her trip over, doing some research for a book. When she arrived, we talked for three hours straight, and then made a plan for the rest of the weekend: She would work in the dining room and living room, and I’d be back in my office. But we would take breaks for snacks and meals and talk about how our work was going, and read excerpts to each other. It was magical.
At the end of the day on Saturday we went down to Tug’s, the casual restaurant on the Mississippi River near my house, for drinks and dinner, and then walked across the street to take pictures at sunset. It felt like a celebration! Returning home we ran into my neighbor and life/writing mentor, Sally Thomason (out walking her dog) and she came over for a champagne toast to (1) my new book deal and (2) the anthology I’m editing that both she and Wendy contributed essays to. And the three of us talked “business” for another hour or two, just like we might have done at the end of a day together in the office. And I thought, “So this is what it feels like to work around other people.” (Okay, full disclosure, it was prosecco, not champagne, and my sweet husband brought it home to celebrate with me the day I got the book deal, but I wasn’t feeling well, so we decided to open it another day. I’m going to replace the bottle this afternoon and share it with him soon!)
I’m definitely a person who needs people. So now that my weekend visit with Wendy is over and it’s time to get back to work (alone) I’ll stay in touch with Wendy (and other writers) through email and Facebook, which helps me not feel so alone. And later this morning, when I’m sitting in the waiting room at the car dealer while my car is being maintenanced, I’ll find that fellowship I crave… in the pages of a good book. My current read? Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women. And I’m re-reading Wendy’s mixed-genre book, An Accidental Memoir: How I Killed Someone and Other Stories.
Hope everyone has a good week! Take care of your mental health… work hard, read a good book, relax, and find a friend to hang out with!
I just finished Lee Smith’s 2014 novel, Guests on Earth, and I am in awe of her. What a masterpiece! Just a few weeks ago I did a post about her memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, which was also amazing. When I learned that her son had schizophrenia and took his own life, I wanted to read Guests on Earth, which is set mostly at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where Smith’s son was treated in the 1980s, and where her father was a patient in the 1950s. But the most prominent patient was Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her beauty and brilliance are shown throughout the novel, as her talents in dance and painting and writing are revealed, along with some complexities surrounding her marriage.
All of this is told through a fictional narrator, Evalina Toussaint, a thirteen-year-old orphan who is admitted to the hospital in 1936 and is taken under Zelda Fitzgerald’s wing. What fascinated me most about the book was the way Smith treated the “guests” (patients) at the hospital. Well, first of all the way the staff treated them in the book—with respect and kindness and none of the terrible things we might come to expect after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But beyond that, I love the way Smith showed each patient’s flawed humanity gently, as she highlighted their talents and gifts. Whether they were struggling with depression or schizophrenia or other mental health issues, they were first and foremost valuable human beings, portrayed with elegance by the author. If you’re wondering about the title, Smith explains it in her notes at the end of the book:
The title comes from a letter Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, Scottie, in 1940: ‘The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.’ This novel intends to examine the very thing line between sanity and insanity. Who’s ‘crazy’ and who’s not? What does that even mean? I’m especially interested in women and madness—and in the resonance between art and madness. I also want to show that very real lives are lived within these illnesses.
And she succeeds in Guests on Earth, a novel of historic, scientific, and artistic importance. I recommend it for anyone whose life has been touched by mental illness, but also anyone who loves good literature.