#Lent2018: Patience and Perseverance

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300Following up on last Monday’s post, “#Lent2018: To Re-spond or De-spond?”… this week I’m continuing my reading in Nicole Roccas’ book Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, and also working with the Lenten reading guide she developed to go with the book.

In Week 1, Roccas encouraged us to find ways to exercise humility. In her “stepping stones for the journey” at the end of the selection, she asked the reader, “What is one way you’d like to try exercising humility this week, based on the readings?” My answer was, “by being honest with myself and others when I fail, especially in the areas of fasting and disordered eating.” I had the opportunity to confess a big fall this weekend, when my husband returned home from a trip around midnight Saturday night and I had experienced an eating binge and purge. But instead of hiding it and letting the failure and secret cause me to despond, I responded to God’s love and forgiveness by confessing it and forgiving myself. As a result, I was able to move on without despairing.

In Week 2, Roccas asks us to read sections of Chapter 2 and 3, as well as a section of Chapter 7, “Patience and Perseverance.” Here are two nuggets from that section that spoke to me:

Patience is a direct counterattack against the restlessness of despondency, which hastens us to the next task before we’ve completed what we started…. We have to be patient with despondency itself. Our first instinct, when the heavy stone of apathy settles in our stomach, is to drop what we’re doing and “fix” whatever has broken with us—we’ll stop folding the laundry or working and seek out the newest blog post, prayer, or experience that will put an end to the feelings we are having.

 

my "work cell"

my “work cell”

I’ve experienced that so many times, especially recently while working on the first draft of a new book, a task that is extremely difficult and sometimes tedious for me. Saturday afternoon I had spent just over an hour on this draft when the restlessness hit me. It was just such hard work, and there were much more fun things available—especially binge-watching Netflix and binge-eating, two activities which seem to feed off each other at times.
Because the second week of Lent includes the commemoration of Saint Gregory of Palamas, Roccas included a quote from his Treatise on the Spiritual Life in this section of the study guide. Here’s part of that quote:

A human being who does not endure courageously the unpleasant burdens of temptations will never produce fruit worthy of the divine winepress and eternal harvest….

Keeping my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard to continue drafting the new book was, at that juncture, my best defense against the “unpleasant burdens of temptations” (Netflix and food binges), but I caved. How could I have won that battle, and what can I do differently next time, because there will definitely be many next times?

Roccas addresses this in her section on “Stepping Stones of Patience”:

My "reading/editing/TV-watching chair"

My “reading/editing/TV-watching chair”

Get to know your cell(s). She is referring to the small space occupied by monks and nuns who live in monasteries, for the lay person, a cell can be a place where we work, live, serve others, etc. As Roccas says:

What is your cell, the space in your life you are responsible to occupy? You probably have many of them, according to different commitments or times of day: the work cell, the cleaning cell, the writing cell, the evening commute cell.

For me, the work cell is the same as the writing cell. And it’s where I should have stayed when I ditched it for the TV and food binge Saturday afternoon and evening. How could I have found the strength to stay put?

Stay put . . . for two minutes. When you feel like fleeing your respective cell, agree to stay put for a short period of time—two, five, or ten minutes to start with…. Say to yourself, “I will keep working on the current task for ten minutes and then check my email,”…. What we’re trying to combat is the impulsivity and mindlessness that bully us into despondent idleness.

 

my "exercise cell"

my “exercise cell”

I experience this same impulsivity when I’m on the elliptical, which faces a big screen TV in my office. My goal is to work out for 20-30 minutes. I turn on a one-hour TV show that I’ve recorded, so that works out to be 40 minutes of viewing without the commercials. I get on the machine and start exercising and watching. But often I don’t even make it to 20 minutes until I’m bored and stop exercising, walk the few feet over to my comfy yellow chair, sit down and continue watching the show without exercising! I feel like Roccas has given me a weapon against this idleness that I can use both while writing and exercising. If I can talk myself into working for two more minutes, or five, or ten, maybe that will breed encouragement and I’ll work even longer. I tried this on Sunday afternoon and it really helped. (P.S. Last week I started working out with a personal trainer at a gym near our house two days a week on the weight machines. At least this part of my exercise routine isn’t self-directed!)

The third thing Roccas says in this section is:

Do more things that require patience…. Read a section of a book, poem, or psalm aloud, slowly, not letting yourself skip over any of the words. Alternately take a walk but move at a snail’s pace or just stand still and look around.

 My version of this activity today was to sit in my other comfy chair (in the living room) and slowly read aloud a passage from Hebrews that Roccas quotes at the top of this page of her study guide. And then I just sat there quietly for about five to ten minutes, which is a lot longer than it sounds when you’re not doing anything—not reading, not sleeping, not watching TV. Try it and you’ll see.

So, for her “Stepping Stones for the Journey” question at the end of this week’s study guide, Roccas asks the reader:

What is one way you’d like to try exercising patience this week, based on the readings?

My answer:

I will try to keep working on my new book for a few minutes longer before stopping to get online or doing something else that’s easier and more fun. And I will try to keep working out on the elliptical for a few minutes longer before getting off to sit in my chair and watch TV. By God’s grace.

Thanks, always, for reading. Stay tuned as the Lenten journey continues, and please leave a comment here or on my Facebook thread.

#Lent2018: To Re-spond or De-spond?

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300Two weeks ago I mentioned a book I’m reading, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, by Nicole M. Roccas. As I continue reading, I’m impressed with the timeliness of reading this book during Great Lent, which begins today for Orthodox Christians. Yes, today is “Clean Monday,” and the journey to Pascha (Orthodox Easter) actually began last night with Forgiveness Vespers in Orthodox churches all over the world. (For reminders about Clean Monday, check out my post from 2016, “Gifts From the Sea on Clean Monday,” and from my old blog, ten years ago: “Forgiveness Sunday and Kites on Clean Monday.”)

This morning as I continue reading Nicole’s book, Time and Despondency, I’m especially struck by the crucial place despondency plays in our Lenten journey. From her chapter, “Time and Despondency”:

TO RESPOND OR DESPOND?

As pointed out earlier, acedia—the Greek term for despondency favored by the theologians of late antiquity—connotes the absence of care. In regard to time, however, despondency also manifests itself as a lack of responsiveness. Actualized time consists of re-sponding, unfulfilled time of de-sponding. Both words—respond and despond—contain the Latin verb spondere: ‘to pledge, promise, or guarantee.’ To re-spond literally means to make a fresh promise. When we respond to God’s love, we are essentially re-promising, re-giving ourselves—offering back to God what was given to us….

On the other hand, to de-spond means to lower or cancel a promise. It implies an absence of, or movement downward from, promise. And when we move away from response, when we descend from the opportunity to offer ourselves back to God—who is substance and fullness—our only option is emptiness. Death.

I read these words several times this morning, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of my heart so that I could see what God was trying to say to me on this, the first day of Great Lent. I often dread Lent, rather than looking forward to this season with its greater number of (longer) church services and its stricter fasting program. But this year I feel a shimmer of hope—and the possibility of responding to the gifts God has for me during this season, rather than desponding, as I often do.

respond-to-gods-light

 

Having recently met with my father confessor for help with this next leg of my spiritual journey, I was given advice for embracing the fast in ways that encourage me to respond, rather than to despond. And as my husband—an Orthodox priest—blessed our home yesterday afternoon with prayers and the sprinkling of holy water on the walls in every room of our house while my Goddaughter Katherine, visiting from Gulfport, and I walked with him throughout the house chanting the verses for the house blessing, I felt my soul responding to this annual tradition with hope. Yes, I have hope that this next year, and especially this Lenten season, will be filled with blessings as I learn to respond to God’s love in ways that will affect my relationship with others and my struggles with my personal demons.

And so I say bring on the fast and the longer, more frequent church services with the darker vestments and minor key music. This year I hope to respond to all of this with love, and not with despair. May God bless.

P.S. After posting a link to this on Facebook yesterday, my friend Erin commented about Nicole’s Lenten Reading Guide she just published to go with the book! Here’s a link to it.

 

Praying, Me Too, and Time’s Up

Kesha and company

 

Watching the amazing performance of “Praying” by Kesha and the other singers on the Grammys Sunday night convinced me to finally do a blog post about the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. And if you missed the performance or you aren’t familiar with the lyrics to “Praying,” here they are. This verse spoke to me about the importance of forgiveness for our abusers:

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Mare closeupIf you’ve read my novel Cherry Bomb—and specifically the Author’s Note in the back of the book, you know that I was sexually abused. I didn’t go into specifics in the Author’s Note, but it happened to me first as a child and later as a young adult. I have an unpublished essay, “Dressing the Part,” which describes some of these events in detail, and I hope the essay will become part of a published collection one day. But I wrote Cherry Bomb partly in order to give voice to what happened to me, through the protagonist, Mare, and two other main characters.  And to also give hope for healing for those characters, and all the real girls and women they represent. But it’s not a book about changing the culture of abuse, which has to happen in real life.

Recently I had a conversation with someone who was having a hard time understanding why the gymnasts didn’t come forward earlier about the molestation by their team physician. Even though some who did suffered more when their parents didn’t believe them. Those young girls had to overcome great fear to even tell their parents, and the resulting disbelief is heartbreaking, but it confirms why they were so afraid. And that physician had an incredible amount of power over them personally and professionally.

Others have expressed disappointment that women in places of power in the entertainment industry haven’t stood up for those who were abused earlier, even feeling that their cheers at the Golden Globes weren’t theirs to give. But who can really understand the fear of being dominated by a man except for those to whom it has happened—in our homes, in our churches, in our communities, in our careers and work places?

I was afraid to tell my mother about the abuse I suffered from my grandfather when I was five years old. In fact, I never told her about how he lured me into the bathroom at his house in Meridian, Mississippi, back in the 1950s and made me give him hand jobs. I also never told my grandmother, who was just in the other room—sewing clothes for me—while this happened. I was afraid. He was a mean son-of-a-bitch, and years later when I dealt with my own feelings about the abuse, I began to wonder if he had also abused my mother. She became an alcoholic and had issues with food and body image and pushed all of that onto me all of my life, resulting in my own struggles with bulimia and alcohol and body image distortion and obsession. When I finally told a close friend—when I was in my forties—she helped me understand what had happened and its affect on my life. Unfortunately, male friends weren’t as understanding, some even saying things like, “Well, at least he didn’t rape you.”

That’s the same thing they said about the Christian physician who molested me on the examining table when I was in my twenties. I stopped him before he could rape me, but the power he had over me, and his hands going places they shouldn’t have, raped my soul. As did the (married) salesman at a business where I worked as a secretary, asking me to go to a hotel room with him after work. I didn’t go, but I was uncomfortable every day and finally left that job.

And someone I looked up to spiritually not only crossed lines with me physically that were not his to cross, he controlled me with verbal and emotional abuse of his power for many years. In retrospect, I’m not sure the verbal and spiritual abuse weren’t worse than the physical.

Maybe there are “degrees” of sexual harassment and molestation, but I’m here to say that NO AMOUNT OF SEXUAL ABUSE IS OKAY. No, not even patting a waitress on her butt or “accidentally” bumping into a woman’s boobs. Not even calling a woman inappropriate “terms of endearment” like “honey” and “sweetheart” unless they are your wife or girlfriend, and then only if they like those names and if they are spoken with respect.

So yes, I’m glad that the tide finally seems to be turning away from a culture of abuse and fear and silence where these things are concerned. I don’t think this will happen overnight, or even completely, any more than bullying in schools and racism will end. But each of us can do our part where we live and work, and we can be alert to our friends and children and create a safe place for them to break the silence if someone is hurting them.

Courage… and Hunger

In my first post of 2018, “Don’t Look Back,” I shared two more wonderful quotes from the Bright Ideas quotes and A Woman’s Book of Inspiration, two wonderful Christmas gifts from my daughter and daughter-in-law. I’d like to share two more today. (I shared my first quotes selections on December 28, “Bright Ideas and Inspirational Quotes.”)

quote

And from A Woman’s Book of Inspiration:

“Women have to summon up courage to fulfill dormant dreams.”–Alice Walker

cover-hungerOne woman who has certainly summoned up a tremendous amount of courage in her personal life and in the literary world is Roxane Gay. I just finished reading her memoir HUNGER yesterday… my seond book to read in 2018. (If you’re not familiar with Gay, some of her other books, short fiction, and essays are listed here.) The author Ann Patchett sums up how I feel about the book:

It turns out that when a wrenching past is confronted with wisdom and bravery, the outcome can be compassion and enlightenment—both for the reader who has lived through this kind of unimaginable pain and for the reader who knows nothing of it. Roxane Gay shows us how to be decent to ourselves, and decent to one another. HUNGER is an amazing achievement in more ways than I can count.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you know that since I quit drinking (on September 8, 2017) I’ve struggled more than ever with food issues, which is why I picked up Gay’s book. It’s not a “how-to” or a “I did it!” book. At all. But it’s so candid and full of compassion… and courage. Gay was raped as a young girl, and this is a testimony to the way that experience has shaped her life. Like Robert Goolrick’s powerful memoir, THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT, it’s a tragic but beautifully written description of what childhood sexual abuse does to a person. I did a guest blog post for Writer’s Digest in 2011 about Goolrick’s book and its affect on me and my writing here:

Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional

My essay, “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day Search for Everything,” was published in the anthology THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL in 2013. It’s really a look inside my own disordered eating. I think Roxane Gay would understand. As would Robert Goolrick. Here’s an excerpt from Gay’s book that reminded me of what I felt writing my essay:

When I am eating a meal, I have no sense of portion control. I am a completist. If the food is on my plate, I must finish it…. At first it feels good, savoring each bite, the world falling away. I forget aout my stresses, my sadness. All I care about are the flavors in my mouth, the extraordinary pleasure of the act of eating. I start to feel full but I ignore that fullness and then that sense of fullness goes away and all I feel is sick, but still, I eat. When there is nothing left, I no longer feel comfort. What I feel is guilt and uncontrollable self-loathing, and oftentimes, I find something else to eat, to soothe those feelings and, strangely, to punish myself, to make myself feel sicker so that the next time, I might remember how low I feel when I overindulge. I never remember. This is to say, I know what it means to hunger without being hungry.

And so as I continue my personal and writing journey in 2018, I’m inspired by Gay’s courage, and by her art. And by Alice Walker’s inspirational words.

End of Year Book List

With just over two weeks left in 2017, I decided to put together my “end of year book list” and share it with my readers. I also decided to try and construct a “book tree” to celebrate the season, using all the books I’ve read and published this year. I think I made the base too wide, so the tree isn’t as tall or shapely as I hoped, but after two attempts, I gave up and snapped a picture of my best effort. Now I’ve got to figure out where to put these books, since all my book shelves are full!

Book tree

 

What an amazing year it’s been! Publishing three books—Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, and Cherry Bomb—and having an essay published in another anthology (Take Care: Tales, Tips, and Love From Women Caregivers, edited by Elayne Clift) have made for an exciting year. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have driven 9,800 miles (in 8 states) for readings, signings, salons, book club meetings, library events, and literary festivals from March through December. My final two events for the year are coming up this week: Thursday night I’m reading CHERRY BOMB at Novel bookstore in Memphis, and Saturday I’m signing CHERRY BOMB at Books-A-Million in Southaven, Mississippi. I’ve got six more events scheduled for CHERRY BOMB in 2018, and then my fourth book will be released in May: Southern Writers on Writing—another anthology I edited.

As a writer, I find that reading is not only enjoyable but crucial to my growth. I read a wide variety of books, from poetry and spirituality to self-help/psychology and other nonfiction, books about art, essay anthologies, memoir, and fiction (mostly novels.) As of today, I’ve read 46 books in 2017, and hope to finish one to two more before the end of the year. I read 38 books in 2016… you can read that list here if you’re curious.

I know 18 of the authors of these books personally, and would love to meet many of the others some day, especially Anne Lamott, Joan Didion, and Ann Patchett. If I had to choose a favorite book from 2017, it would be Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. It’s the book I wish I had written.

What’s up for 2018? I’m currently reading Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks by Stephen Davis. This is a real departure for me, as I rarely read biographies, but this one really captures the culture and music of much of my life, and I’m really enjoying it. And on the top of my “to read” stack are three novels:

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Secrets of the Devil Vine by Faith Kaiser

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

So, here’s my list. It’s pretty much in the order in which I read the books. I’d love to know what you read this year. If you publish a year-end list, please leave me a link as a comment here or on Facebook. Happy holiday reading!!!

 

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

A Southern Girl by John Warley

Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer

Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body by Angela Doll Carlson

The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music, and Cocktails by Jim Dees

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression by Daphne Merkin

Heartbreak Hotel by Anne Rivers Siddons

The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons

Unspeakable Things, a novel by Jackie Warren Tatum

Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott

Truly Human: Recovering Your Humanity in a Broken World by Kevin Scherer

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

South and West by Joan Didion

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwen

Belles’ Letters II edited by Jennifer Horne and Don Noble

The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels by Anka Muhlstein

Camino Island by John Grisham

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

Perennials by Julie Cantrell

An Unforseen Life by Mary Ann Connell

My Soul Looks Back by Jessica B. Harris

That Woman From Mississippi by Norma Watkins

The Bookshop at Water’s End by Patti Callahan Henry

This Naked Mind by Annie Grace

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

The Cage-Maker by Nicole Seitz

The Address by Fiona Davis

Among the Mensans by Corey Mesler

Drinking: A Love Story by Carolyn Knapp (re-read)

Lit by Mary Karr (re-read)

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

Dancing With My Father by Leif Anderson

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

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.

The Last Lecture and Another Special Anniversary

the-last-lecture-randy-pauschTen years ago today—September 18, 2007—Randy Pausch gave his “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon. He was a computer science professor who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Unlike most professors who are asked to imagine their demise when giving their last lecture, Pausch didn’t have to imagine his—it was right before him. He was given a few months to live.

His lecture, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” was about overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, seizing every moment, and not knowing how many moments you might have. You can watch it here.

The lecture, and the book, The Last Lecture, were more than a legacy for his students and colleagues and friends. They were Pausch’s gift to his three children, who were too young to understand the life lessons he wanted to teach them. The book was a great blessing to me, and I plan to give it as gifts to my children. My favorite quote from his lecture and book:

“We can’t change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

Mary Allison CallawayThis day—September 18—is also the nineteenth anniversary of the death of my precious Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway (d. 9.18.1998). I wrote about it on the tenth anniversary of her death here.

Mary Allison wasn’t given the opportunity that Randy Pausch was given—to prepare for his death. She was killed instantly by a drunk driver. But she was prepared by the way she was living her life. She was a shining light to all who knew her, and an enormous blessing to me and my family. I still miss her. Memory eternal, Mary Allison.

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

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.

 

© Copyright SusanCushman.com