Authentic Happiness

NYM_top1I just scored a 3.08 on a scale of 1 to 5 on the Authentic Happiness Inventory designed by folks at the University of Pennsylvania.  The score reflects my overall “happiness” compared with others in my age group, zip code, education level, gender, and occupation group. Although I think it’s interesting that “writer” isn’t even listed as an occupation, so I checked “artist,” the closest option to my occupation. Why did I take this inventory?

This morning, with my morning coffee, I read an article in the recent issue of New York Magazine, “The Cure for New York Face,” about Professor Laurie Santos’s new course at Yale University, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. I was struck by the statistics—especially among people who seem to have lots of “reasons” to be happy, from an exterior point of view. Of course there’s lots about two things that seem related to our “happiness”—time and money, and how we value them and spend them.

In Praise coverSome parts of the article reminded me of the wonderful little book I read recently by Alan Lightman, In Praise of Wasting Time. I bought and read this book a few weeks ago, primarily because its author wrote the Foreword to the anthology I edited that was recently published by University Press of Mississippi, Southern Writers on Writing. Alan is from Memphis, but teaches at MIT now. A physicist. And a novelist. Interesting combination, and he brings both of those gifts to bear in his book, and his TED talk.

Last fall I did a post about Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, “Moments of Happiness.”

Last March I did a post reflecting on a Wall Street Journal article, “Two Types of Happiness.”

The same month I read and reviewed Daphne Merken’s book, This Close to Happy.

Five years ago I was blogging about an article in Psychology Today: “Mindfulness Does Not Lead to Happiness.”

And six years ago I wrote this one: “Permission to NOT Be Happy.”

Are you seeing a trend here? And yet, I do feel that I am “happier” now that I was six years ago. And I’m actually a bit surprised that I didn’t score higher on the Authentic Happiness Inventory. But I do tend to be quite honest and in touch with my feelings. From a spiritual point of view, I sometimes wonder how important “happiness” is, as opposed to what seem to be deeper states like “peace” and “contentment.”

thOne thing I found interesting in the New York Magazine article was the author’s comments about money and happiness. His study showed that $75,000/year seems to be the salary “scientifically proven to provide the maximum amount of well-being.” So, he noted that in one study people making $30,000 a year were asked what salary would make them truly happy. The average answer was $50,000. But people making $100,000 a year said, on average, $250,000 would make them happy. Maybe it’s the old adage that the more we have, the more we want. I’m thinking about this now, not in terms of financial success, but with my writing career. Five years ago I was working with a New York literary agent (whom I would later part ways with) on my novel, CHERY BOMB, wondering if it would ever be published. When it came out last year—with a small press in Mississippi and not with one of the “big five”—I was “happy” to be published. It was a lifelong dream finally coming true. Actually, having three books published last year was pretty amazing. And a fourth this month. So, why is it that I still want “more”? Why am I now querying literary agents again (for my linked short story collection) rather than submitting it to an academic press?

the-quest-for-authentic-happiness-460x291I put this question to a very spiritual person whom I trust, and he encouraged me that it was a normal progression in my career to desire this next step up. That I wasn’t being obsessive about “success” in an unhealthy manner.

And yet I find myself praying—yes—for more success. My novel is entered into two prestigious writing contests and I’m waiting to hear the results this summer. Would I find a greater level of “happiness” if it wins one of those awards? Or even makes a short list or becomes a finalist? Of course I believe that would make me happier, but is that a superficial goal?

Again, I’ve been struggling with this for years, as these posts show:

“I Want More” (from 2016)

“We Want More” (from 2013)

It IS interesting to read those posts now, as someone who quit drinking almost nine months ago. I still want MORE (potato chips, chocolate, and—in conflict with those cravings—a skinnier body) almost every day, but I take encouragement from the fact that I was able to tame my out-of-control desire for more vodka, and hope that eventually the strength (and God’s grace) that enabled me to do that will cross over into other areas of my life. Like food. And contentment in my career.

I’d love to hear from my readers about your take on happiness. And if any of you take the Authentic Happiness Inventory, please let me know what you thought about it. Meanwhile, have a great weekend!

#Lent2018: Sassy Counterpunches—Chiseling a Crack in Despondency

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the sixth and final entry in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first five posts and would like to catch up, here they are, in order from first week through fifth:

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

Gratitude & Thankswriting

Confession & Community

Labor & Leisure

For some reason Nicole skips Chapter 6, “Prayers From the Present,” altogether in the study guide that she created to go with the book. I read it before reading the “assignments” for this week, and found some treasures within:

One of the snares of despondency is to assume that more is always better…. [we] somehow get an idea in our minds that we should be praying longer harder, more intensely. We forsake the virtue of knowing ourselves—and our limitations—and cling instead to our fictional superselves.

This was an important “takeaway” for me from the book, because in years past I have gone to one extreme or another (which is my nature) during Lent. Some years I have rebelled against the whole endeavor, and other years I aimed too high. This has been my best experience of Lent in the thirty years since I’ve been Orthodox. Undoubtedly one reason is that I quit drinking six months ago, so this is my first alcohol-free Lent. But also, I’ve approached the season with a kindness towards myself and others that has permeated my Lenten practices—fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. So, when I read in Chapter 6 about what Nicole calls “counter-statement,” I embraced her approach of using short phrases from the Psalms or short prayers throughout the day to “counter” the temptations life sends our way.  As she says:

There is also an aspect of counter-statement that is lively—even sassy. These prayers are quick, punchy, and purposefully confrontational. They carry an energy all their own, helping to reignite the vigor despondency all but stifles.

Sassy prayers. I like that. It reminds me of the little quote I have taped to the lamp beside my computer that says, “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning the devil says “Oh crap, she’s up!”

oh crap shes up

 

I see these sassy prayers as a wonderful tool for what Nicole addresses in Chapter 7, “Stepping Stones Back to the Present,” where she talks about shifting toward “everyday strategies to mitigate despondency’s stranglehold on our lives.” This is the chapter where earlier she addressed humility, patience and perseverance, gratitude, confession and community, and labor and leisure, all of which I commented on in previous posts. This final week she surprised me by including humor as the final stepping stone. As she says,

The virtue of humor is likely among the last items one would expect to find in a book on despondency—which is why I’ve saved it, literally, for the end of this book…. humor helps us recover the vitality despondency robs us of.

And within the topic of humor, she addresses laughter:

Simultaneously, laughter causes an upsurge of energy within us. Riding on the wings of laughter, our soul can jump up through the cracks of our defenses and grab hold of ideas we would otherwise reject or overlook…. Adopting a more playful attitude toward ourselves and our shortcomings pulls us out of despondent thinking more swiftly than any other approach. It’s not a permanent solution, of course, but even a few seconds’ smile is enough to get our foot in the door of our own mind and start to redirect it toward the heart.

laughter-is-carbonated-holiness-2Anne Lamott calls laughter “carbonated holiness.”

I have a dear friend who has Lewy Body Dementia. She’s younger than me, but the disease has already taken away her ability to perform many of life’s everyday functions. She used to have the best sense of humor of most anyone I know, and I miss her laugh. So each time I visit her, I make a point of finding something humorous to say. And once she starts laughing, her whole countenance changes—from the dark, scary, negative images that the disease is pouring into her mind, back to the funny woman I once knew. I try to help her find some happiness, if only for a few minutes.

It might seem strange to be talking about humor and laughter during the last week of Lent and just a week before we enter Holy Week. (Or for my Catholic and Episcopal friends, as you enter Holy Week today.) But I think Nicole makes a good case for its proper use in our spiritual lives, as well as for our mental health. As she says at the conclusion of this chapter:

Wise humor chisels a crack in despondency just wide enough for our souls to slip through, get some fresh air, and see the bigger picture.

biblical10

 

In the final chapter of the book, ““Re-presenting Reality,” Nicole brings us back to the focus, to the reason for all the talk about despondency to begin with. We are preparing to enter into the celebration of Pascha, of Christ’s resurrection:

. . . not to commemorate the Resurrection, as though it were (only) a historical event, but to re-present it—to make Christ present among us as a living fact…. Likewise, we live in the present only inasmuch as we abide in His presence.

This is why so many of our Paschal hymns use the present tense, with phrases like, “Today is the day of resurrection,” and “He is risen!” The Orthodox celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection aren’t just remembrances. We enter into His suffering, and then into the joy of His resurrection in the services of Holy Week and Pascha. As Nicole says:

. . . let us have the courage to profess with St. Paul that today is the day of salvation—not two thousand years ago, not happily ever after in heaven, not when we finally manage to get ourselves sorted out, but today. . . . This is what we lose when we retreat into the slow, apathetic death of despondency. And this—all of this—is what we stand to regain when we return toward home and let the scales fall from our eyes.

#Lent2018: Confession and Community

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the fourth in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first three posts and would like to catch up, here they are:

Gratitude & Thankswriting

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

In Chapter 4, Nicole writes about our tendency to escape the present—to avoid our current circumstances, whether it be work, dealing with a difficult situation, relationships with other people, or anything that brings discomfort or requires effort. When we are despondent, we want to escape place and people, which is why confession and community are both important to consider at this juncture. We become restless, and we try to escape in three realms: physically, mentally, and spiritually:

The uncertainty of the present moment confronts us with an ever-unfolding reminder that we are not God, that we are not the masters of our own universe, that there are things we cannot choose or control. Whatever the present looks like at any given moment, there are only two possible ways of responding to it: to enter or exit it, to respond or despond.

Acedia

 

 

Of course one of the primary means of exit—of desponding—that I fall into often involves the physical act of gluttony, or “emotional eating,” as well as over-indulging in television and laziness in general. And one that she mentions that surprised me but makes perfect sense, is “unnecessary busyness.” I love being busy, and I’m sure I use busyness as an escape at times. This might sound confusing as I know I’ve heard that being active is good medicine for depression, but I think that healthy activity and excessive busyness are two different things.

Nicole Roccas, authorNicole goes into depth to expand our understanding of ways to mentally escape the present, including the understanding of two primary roots of despondency in the mind—desire and anger. As a creative (writer) I’ve always struggled with any idea of having my desires and passions stifled by the church. But understood correctly, I don’t think that’s what she is saying here, as she quotes the Dutch Catholic theologian (and one of my favorite writers) Henri Nouwen:

Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and serve God.

And what does she say about anger?

The anger of despondency is the anger of thwarted wishes, of reality not aligning with our silent demands—the anger that covers the pain of a lifetime spent trying (and failing) to be one’s own god.

So what does all this discussion about living in the present and not escaping it have to do with confession and community? I really like how she tied the importance of community in with our battle against despondency:

The relational context of confession reminds us how vital it is to cultivate fruitful community in the midst of despondency, which continually pulls us toward isolationism.

journal 1Her discussion and reflection questions helped me to reaffirm my commitment to do more spiritual (and not exclusively secular) reading during Lent, to participate as often as possible in the weekly services at church, and to continue to struggle against my tendency to escape with food/gluttony when I’m uncomfortable living in the present.

As she did with the previous chapter, Nicole gives us “Stepping Stones,” in this case, for confession and community: participate in community; initiate community; and learn to see confession as medicine. She asks the reader to consider one way to exercise the stepping stones this week. I hope to reach out to friends and neighbors who have special needs, initiating community and keeping despondency at bay.

P. S. I am really finding blessings in keeping my “thankswriting journal,” which I wrote about in last week’s post and began last Monday night.

Birthday Musings: People Can Change #sixmonthswithoutadrink

67th birthdayI am 67 years old today. Damn, that sounds old! But it also sounds wonderful because, as E.E. Cummings said,

“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I had my last drink SIX MONTHS AGO TODAY, on September 8, 2017. I wrote about it here:

“0 Meetings in 90 Days” (December, 2017)

and again here:

“120 Days” (January 8, 2017)

6_month_chip_magnet-re89176215e1a488c9cd00a469e07f899_x7js9_8byvr_630My closest friends are as baffled as I am about how I’ve been able to do this. Without rehab. Without AA. (Read my first post above for more info on that.) And today, six months in, I’m more convinced than ever that it has to do with:

Timing. I read Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind, at a time when I was ready to hear her words, and ready to act on them.

God’s grace. Every morning I ask God to help me make it through the day without a drink. And every evening I say thanks. Kind of like Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow. That’s exactly how I feel today!

It also has to do with believing that people can change. In my blog post from August 8, 2010, “Can People Change?” I quoted an Orthodox psychotherapist, Dr. Jamie Moran, from his essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World:

People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.

37566-People-Can-ChangeI was trying to change back then, and for many years before that. But I couldn’t seem to let go of one of the main things that gave me comfort from my suffering—both emotional and physical—alcohol. (Another thing that I’m still struggling to let go of is trying to find that comfort from food, and I’m hoping that I will learn to do that as I have learned to let go of alcohol.) Sexual abuse—both as a child and as a young adult—left me in a messy battle with God, self, and my abusers, leading first to a lifetime of disordered eating and several decades of disordered drinking.

I’ve also struggled most of my adult life with anger and depression, which are in many ways two sides of the same coin. But in these areas I also believe that people can change, and I’m thankful to see progress with both of those demons in my own life, starting ten years ago when I had a breakthrough with anger, and wrote about it in an essay that was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project: “Blocked.” And I’m continuing to learn ways to deal with depression—and its close cousin despondency—this Lent, as I read and write about Nicole Roccas’s new book, Time and Despondency.

So, as I move forward today into my sixty-eighth year of this amazing life that God has given me, I will try to continue to leave a space for God. Because I believe that people can change.

#Lent2018: Gratitude & “Thankswriting”

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is my third in a Lenten series in which I’m reflecting on Nicole Roccas’s book Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life. If you missed my first two entries, here they are:

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perseverance

As I continue to follow along in Nicole’s Lenten reading guide, this morning I read the sections she suggested for Week 3 of Lent, in which we are moving towards the second Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Elevation of the Cross.

The first section I read this morning was chapter 3, “What is the Present Moment?” Her words in this chapter fit well with the “homework” Father Philip Rogers, our pastor at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, gave us during his homily yesterday—to spend five minutes in complete silence every day during Lent (and maybe to let that practice continue beyond Lent, as the other spiritual practices we have awakened in our lives should also continue). This dovetails nicely into the other books I’m (re)reading during Lent this year: Living Prayer and Meditations on a Theme, both by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. I discovered Met. Bloom’s books many years ago, but I like to revisit them to help re-center myself in prayer and silence—two things that aren’t organic for me, but require a lot of effort. In this chapter, Nicole says:

Why is it so crucial to “be present” in the way St. Theophan and the neptic Fathers admonish? Because the present moment is the only time in which we can encounter the Resurrection and Christ Himself. We cannot meet Him in the past or future; the only time we have is now.

This might seem obvious, and yet, as she points out later in this chapter, we tend to live in the past and the future:

Perhaps the first step of despondency—the first departure from the present moment—is numbing ourselves to care and all the pain it can bring. Counterintuitive though it may seem, fostering regret and anxiety toward past and future are part of that numbing process, because they extract us from the arena of caring and deposit us in the cesspool of rumination, where the mind can manipulate its own reality.

I have experienced this constantly throughout my life—this “cesspool of rumination”—where I let my mind take me to past regrets, to past hurts so that I hold onto them and undo the forgiveness I worked so hard to give at some point, or to anxiety about the future, to the point where I obsess over things as immediate as the success of my literary career or as (possibly) far off as failing health, especially with my family history of Alzheimer’s. So what help does Nicole offer us to counter these tendencies, which lead us down the path of ongoing despondency?

the-real-gift-of-gratitude-robert-holden-quotes-sayings-picturesIn chapter 7, “Stepping Stones Back to the Present,” the section we read this week is about GRATITUDE. She shares the story of a man who struggled with depression and was giving a talk on mental health and faith:

Just before a major depression struck, he would notice that he had stopped giving thanks for ordinary things in life…. A cessation of gratitude was the most consistent forewarning that another storm was on the horizon and he needed to change course.

I have a close friend who always seems to be thankful, even in the midst of her struggles. We talk on the phone frequently, and I’m always impressed with how often she injects thanksgiving into our conversations, reminding me that Christ’s love is with us, especially in our struggles.

1gratitudepooh

So, this morning, I combined Father Phillip’s “homework”—to sit silently for five minutes—with Nicole’s suggestions about giving thanks. As I sat quietly, I interrupted my silence only to name things I was thankful for: Our oldest son’s visit with us from New Orleans this weekend. Almost six months without a drink (I’ll blog about that on Thursday). A new friend I’ve recently made and the joy of that mutually encouraging relationship. A special lunch with our fifteen-year-old Goddaughter and how precious she is and how wonderful our relationship with her is. Some good reviews of my latest book. The loveliness of our home. The growing love in my marriage of almost 48 years.

thanks journalAt the end of this section in Time & Despondency, Nicole offers several “Stepping Stones of Thanksgiving.” I’m not going to list them here, but when she asks in the reading guide, “What is the one way you’d like to try exercising gratitude this week, based on the readings?” my reply is to follow her third stepping stone:  “Thankswriting.” This seems like an obvious choice for a writer, doesn’t it? I will keep a small journal (just found one in a drawer in my office) on my bedside table, and every night I will list one or two items that I am thankful for that day. It lifts my spirits to just think about doing this simple act of being present, of living in the moment, and accessing its power against despondency! Join me?

#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.

 

Pre-Lenten Encouragement

TriodionIt’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged about my current (and life-long) struggle with disordered eating. (If you missed it, it’s here: “Courage and Hunger.”)

Since that post, I’ve made a spiritual shift that I’d like to share today. In the Orthodox Church, we are in a pre-Lenten period of the three weeks leading up to Lent known as the Triodion. The three Sundays in this time period, and the fourth Sunday, the day before Lent begins, are outlined here:

Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Sunday of the Last Judgment

Sunday of Forgiveness

Many people take advantage of the Church’s intensified calendar (more services, longer services, stricter fasting guidelines, encouragement to give alms, special retreats and speakers, etc.) as a time to jump-start their spiritual lives. Taking a spiritual inventory, going to Confession, and working on “pet passions” that plague you are common activities during this time. I got a head-start this year, with a productive meeting with my pastor last week, and the healing sacrament of confession.

chocolateOne of the main things I went to my father confessor for help with is my ongoing struggle with the disordered eating I mentioned above, which has intensified since I quit drinking back in September. I’ve actually gained back seven of the fifteen pounds I worked so hard to lose last year. (I wrote about this struggle about a month ago, here: “120 Days.”) I shared with him my frustration that I couldn’t apply the same effort (and God’s grace!) that I use every day to not drink alcohol to disciplining myself regarding the junk foods that seem to have me in their grip. He offered me some encouragement—both spiritual and practical advice—and I’ve been praying about it a bit more. Somehow, today, I decided to throw away the rest of the fondue chocolates in the bag in my pantry and not buy any more. And at the grocery store the other day, I made the same decision regarding the kettle-cooked potato chips. I know the struggle isn’t over, but somehow making these decisions feels like a hopeful beginning.

In the area of spiritual food, Father encouraged me to “tithe my reading” this year, especially during Lent. I told him that I read almost 50 books in 2017, but only two were spiritual. Mostly I read memoir, literary fiction, and psychology/mental health books. So, 10% of 50 = 5, so I plan to read at least five spiritual books this year. I mentioned that I love Anthony Bloom’s books on prayer, and he agreed that they are a great place to start. I went to my “spiritual” book shelves and quickly found Living Prayer and Meditations on a Theme, both of which I read over twenty years ago.

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280And then I remembered that I had just gotten a new book, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, by Nicole M. Roccas, which was just released last month. Nicole actually spoke at our women’s retreat at St. John Orthodox Church her in Memphis last year, but I was out of town and missed her talks. (She also has some wonderful podcasts, available here, on Ancient Faith Radio.) We’ve become friends on Facebook, and when I discovered her book I ordered it immediately. I started reading it today, and when I opened it, I found a quote on the page before her Acknowledgments by Anthony Bloom… and later quotes by Kathleen Norris. I knew right away we would be kindred spirits.

In the introduction, Nicole says:

I saw my despondency for what it truly was: a condition that robbed my entire self—body, soul, and spirit—of the freedom to dwell with Christ in love.

I immediately thought about Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind, which helped me quit drinking, because Grace talks about finding FREEDOM, although her approach isn’t spiritual. But truth is truth, and I believe God led me to read This Naked Mind as much as He has led me to Nicole’s book.

You might be wondering what despondency/depression has to do with disordered eating (or maybe you’re not wondering… maybe you already get it)… but for me, much of my junk-food addiction and binging have to do with depression. Nicole addresses this several places in the first chapter of her book:

Despondency has an infinite array of disguises and symptoms. Among the most universal signs is inner restlessness…. For still others, despondency begins as an inclination toward sleep, eating, distraction, or worry.

I probably have some degree of (undiagnosed) ADD… I’m always looking for some excitement in my life, and I get bored easily, which is a quick slide into depression. As Nicole says:

… we manipulate even necessary activities like sleeping and eating—normally peaceful and life-giving—to serve our apathy. They become desperate efforts to soak up the boredom leaking out of every orifice of life.

I’ve only just begun reading this book, but I look forward to continuing, and then to re-reading Bloom’s books on prayer. Oh, and to actually praying more. Even before we enter Great Lent. Stay tuned… I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this journey.

Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons

ASB CoverI’m off to Nacogdoches, Texas, on Thursday for the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, where as many as several hundred members of Pulpwood Queens book clubs from all over the country gather every year, along with several dozen authors. I’m on two panels:

Thursday, 7 p.m. A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE. This is the anthology I edited, published last March, and it has been chosen as the book club selection for February by the Pulpwood Queens. Several contributors will be joining me on the panel: Julie Cantrell, River Jordan, NancyKay Wessman, and Susan Marquez. Memphis author Suzanne Henley won’t be there, but she will be there in spirit. Suzanne’s essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is included in the collection. And she has a book coming out this March: BEAD BY BEAD: THE ANCIENT WAY OF PRAYING MADE NEW. It’s part memoir, part spiritual journal, part “how to pray with Protestant prayer beads.”

Bead by Bead FULLCover_need Spine

 

Prayer BeadsThere’s an auction during the weekend to raise money for the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina. Suzanne has contributed a hand-made set of her prayer beads, which I’ll be taking with me to the auction on Thursday. The beads she uses are from all over the world, some as ancient as 200 B.C. She includes a beautifully written description and inspirational note to go with each set. She has dedicated this set to author Julie Cantrell, who has inspired Suzanne, and who also wrote a wonderful blurb for BEAD BY BEAD. Julie is also on a panel for her novel PERENNIALS during the weekend.

Prayer Beads notes

On Saturday afternoon at 2:12 I’ll be on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB, which is one of the Pulpwood Queens book club selections for March. And I’m contributing an item for the auction, as well. It’s an 8 X 8 inch canvas print of the “weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I painted… the one that appears on the back cover of the book. CB cover FINALIn CHERRY BOMB, the icon is weeping for women who have been abused (including the three main characters in the book). The icon I painted isn’t actually weeping, but my daughter-in-law See Cushman added the “tears” using Photoshop. I hope that it will be a blessing to whoever buys it during the auction.

 

Mary of Egypt weeping

 

 

I can’t wait to spend the weekend with these amazing women, sharing our love for books! The theme this year is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so watch for some pictures on Facebook with lots of fun costumes!

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.

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