Wooden Sidewalks (Eupora, Mississippi)

Mr. Carl Ray, Murrah High School, Jackson, Mississippi, 1969

Mr. Carl Ray, Murrah High School, Jackson, Mississippi, 1969

When I was a student at Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi (1966-1969) I had a guidance counselor named Carl Ray. Mr. Ray was very formal in his speech and demeanor—even a bit stuffy. And we were an odd pairing, since I was an academic “rebel” of sorts. It’s not that I was a complete slouch—I finished 67th in a class of 407. But there were quite a few National Merit finalists and scholars ahead of me on that list, and frankly, I didn’t really care. I wasn’t on the fast track to academic excellence. I was more interested in other things.

Feature writer, Murrah "Hoofbeat," 1966-67

Feature writer, Murrah “Hoofbeat,” 1966-67

Beginning with my sophomore year (first year for our high school) when I got a part in the school’s production of “Our Town,” and also nabbed a position as feature writer on the school newspaper, “The Hoofbeat.” During my junior and senior years I majored in the arts, painting stage scenery for our musical production of “L’il Abner” while continuing with the newspaper, as advertising manager and finally business manager. Did I mention that I made it all the way through high school without taking any classes in science or languages? And only minimal mathematics courses? I loved English, and my senior year I had a terrific teacher who focused on composition and taught me to revise my work. So how did my path put me at odds with my guidance counselor?

A scene from "Our Town," in which I played "Rebecca," younger sister of "George," played by my brother Mike. Murrah High School 1966.

A scene from “Our Town,” in which I played “Rebecca,” younger sister of “George,” played by my brother Mike. Murrah High School 1966.

I remember being called into Mr. Ray’s office once (well, more than once) to talk about my schedule for the following year, which would have been my senior year. He expressed concern because I didn’t have any science courses. I reminded him that I took biology in the 9th grade, and that was the last year of science that was required to graduate. He was miffed because most students who skip 9th grade science in order to take biology are on the advanced route—they do this in order to take three advanced science courses in high school. I did it to get out of one year of science. He couldn’t make me take more. But what about language and accelerated math? I wasn’t interested in either. I padded my schedule with advanced art, journalism, and home economics, which I scheduled during lunch so I could take my own food and warm it up in the classroom’s kitchen. Poor Mr. Ray was frustrated with my lack of academic motivation.

Some of the students in our school made fun of Mr. Ray for being from the small town of Eupora, Mississippi. I remember hearing them ask him if they had wooden sidewalks in Eupora. I never gave it another thought until October 9, when I drove down to Webster County to speak to the Friends of the Library group there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEupora has a population of about 2500 people, living on 5.6 square miles of land. It’s amazing that they even have a library, although it’s only open three days a week and has one part-time employee and a couple of volunteers. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I drove through this tiny town and found the library. The drive itself was easy—straight down I-55 from Memphis to Winona, and then a few miles east on Highway 82. Cotton fields popped up on both sides of the highway as I gradually stepped back in time. Eupora was designated a Historic District on the National Register in 2011. The railroad depot, built in 1885, is the oldest surviving building in the town. And yes, there are wooden sidewalks.

wooden sidewalks

But there are also a number of avid readers, including some retired school teachers, in the very active Webster County Friends of the Library group. 14 of them showed up for my reading. Before the meeting started, I asked a couple of the ladies if they knew a man named Carl Ray. They immediately lit up and began telling me his story. He was Superintendent of Education in Eupora before he moved to Jackson to work with the public schools there. They adored him. Eventually he retired back home in Eupora, and had only passed away a couple of years ago. One woman had visited his 90-something-year-old widow in the nursing home just the day before I arrived in Eupora. I told them he had been my guidance counselor in high school, and they all said how lucky I was to have had him. I just smiled and agreed with their assessment of him.

Meanwhile we gathered in a tiny room in the back of the library where three tables were decorated with fall and Halloween décor. I was set up with a podium from which I gave a reading and led a discussion about my novel CHERRY BOMB. They asked very informed questions and several folks purchased copies of the book and asked me to sign them. The group even bought a copy for the library. “Miss Betty” had prepared our lunch, which was served on paper plates at our tables—ham and cheese and pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crust cut off, potato chips, soft drinks, and homemade pies for dessert. As I visited with these folks I thought about how far removed their lives were from “Mare,”the young run-away graffiti artist in CHERRY BOMB, Elaine deKooning, the famous abstract expressionist painter, the Orthodox nuns and the weeping icons. Maybe I brought a little bit of color into their lives with the stories I shared. They certainly enriched my life that day in Eupora, Mississippi, and I gained a greater appreciation for Mr. Carl Ray. May he rest in peace.

Skyping, Book Clubs, Libraries, and Galleys

We’ve been home from our 9-day road trip/book tour since Friday night, but I’m just now catching my breath…. After unpacking, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and opening a week’s worth of mail, I finally got back to “work.”

book-club-book

Last night was my first time to be guest author at a book club. The members are all part of my church—St. John Orthodox—here in Memphis. This meeting was for my first book Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Three of the women in the group have already lost their mother’s—one to Alzheimer’s—and everyone had read the book, so we had a heart-felt discussion about our relationships with our mothers and our own outlook on aging. The group has invited me back in 2018 to meet with them when they read my novel Cherry Bomb. The atmosphere is different from a reading at a bookstore or library… a bit more intimate and interactive. I really enjoyed it.

"Skyping" with a Texas book club?

“Skyping” with a Texas book club?

Next Monday night I’ll have another “first”… I’m Skyping with a book club in Sugar Land, Texas! My high school classmate Stephanie Aucoin Davidson read Cherry Bomb and recommended it to her book club, then they invited me for a “virtual meeting” with them next week. I’ve downloaded the Skype app and practiced using it, so I hope it works out! I’m slowly joining the twenty-first century when it comes to technology. Here’s a funny (but true) story that my kids will laugh at. My 80-something neighbor called me yesterday morning and asked if I could come over and help him figure out some things on his iPhone. I walked across the street and sat down with him in his kitchen, and fortunately, I was able to answer his questions and teach him a few tricks—thanks to help I’ve received in the past from my kids! (A new take on paying it forward!)

I’m already scheduled for three book club meetings in 2018 to discuss Cherry Bomb, so it looks like I’ll have many opportunities for these up-close-and-personal discussions. What a joy!

Meanwhile, my other “project” this week was to finish proof-reading the galleys for the anthology I’m editing, Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi 2018), which I finished today. I couldn’t figure out how to use the “sticky notes” on the PDF file, but the press was okay with my low-tech way of sending them corrections. I just wrote down the page numbers, paragraphs, etc., and what the correction was in a Word document and sent it to them. Fortunately there were only 4 corrections in the entire manuscript, which consists of twenty-six essays, a foreword and introduction—kudos to the press for great editing! So I sent off the edits, and the index, which I finished a couple of weeks ago, today.  Ahh.

friends-logoThis gives me a day to relax (tomorrow) before heading down to Starkville, Mississippi, on Thursday to meet with the Friends of the Library Group there. The good people from The Book Mart will be handling sales of Cherry Bomb, so I’ll be able to focus on some (hopefully) lively conversations about the book. Next week I’ll drive down to Oxford and Aberdeen (both also in Mississippi), for events for Cherry Bomb at both of their local libraries. Although I’m a native of Jackson, I rarely—if ever—visited these small towns in my home state, so I’m thankful for the opportunity this book tour gives me for getting to know more of “my people” and the places they call home.

CHERRY BOMB Book Tour Continues: ALABAMA and FLORIDA!

What a great time I had last weekend on the Mississippi Gulf Coast! It started with a live interview on WLOX Biloxi TV (for CHERRY BOMB) on Friday afternoon (October 20) followed by a reading/signing at Pass Christian Books and Cat Island Coffee House right on the beach at Pass Christian, Mississippi on Saturday afternoon, October 21. The weekend was enhanced by a visit from our oldest son, Jon, my hosts Hardy and Katherine Thames (she’s my Goddaughter), and a lovely after-party at the home and interior design studio of Al and Cathy Lawson in Bay St. Louis, and an early dinner (royal reds for me!) at The Blind Tiger on the water in Bay St. Louis. Oh, and Sunday morning’s 16th birthday breakfast for Mary Thames and family at the Harbor View Café in Long Beach, Mississippi. (See more photos at the end of this post.)

Group Pass Books

Laura Beth Hebbler (Ocean Springs), Hardy and Katherine Thames (Gulfport), me, Jon Cushman (our oldest son, who lives in New Orleans), and Cathy Lawson (Bay St.Louis)

 

I’m having a great time touring the South to share my joy over my novel CHERRY BOMB. Having already been to 7 venues in Tennessee and Mississippi (with 7 more events scheduled in Mississippi in November and December and 2 more scheduled in Memphis so far) I’m off on a fun road trip with my husband tomorrow. We’re combining his career and mine, starting with two days in Franklin, Tennessee, where he’s speaking at a medical meeting, and we’re having dinner with one of our nephews, and I’m having lunch with a writer friend. Then we’re combining a fall beach vacation with three book events for me. Here’s the schedule for my appearances along the Florida Gulf Coast and the Eastern Shore of the Mobile Bay:

Saturday, October 28 (2-5:30 p.m.)—“Choose Your Own Cover” music and literary event at the Capitol Oyster Bar in Montgomery, Alabama. Patrons will pay $15 cover charge for some great music and will choose from five authors’ books. I’m so excited to be joining Alabama authors Suzanne Hudson, Joe Formichella, Marlin Barton, Loretta Cobb, and William Cobb. And we’ll all be enjoining the musical talents of Chris Clifton and Gove Scrivenor. My husband and I visited the Oyster Bar last April and enjoyed some of the best oyster and Argentine shrimp (yes!) ever. Can’t wait to be back there on Saturday!

Monday, October 30 (4-6 p.m.)Sundog Books, Seaside, Florida, where I’ll be signing copies of CHERRY BOMB on the front porch of this terrific bookstore in a legendary town. (And meeting up with old Memphis friends afterwards at the Great Southern Café next door!)

Wednesday, November 1 (4-5:30 p.m.)—The Hidden Lantern Bookstore in scenic Rosemary Beach, Florida. After my book signing, I hope to head across 30-A to one of my favorite places, La Crema

Thursday, November 2 (2-3 p.m.)Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama. This will be my second event at this wonderful bookstore, which hosted me back in April for my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.  Can’t wait to read and sign CHERRY BOMB for the good (and very literary) people of Fairhope. And many thanks to my friend Ren Hinote, who is hosting an after-party in her home in nearby Montrose.

Watch for pictures on Facebook, and thanks, always, for reading. I hope to see some of you along the tour!

Susan at register Pass Books

Beautiful views at the Cat Island Coffee Shop inside Pass Christian Books!

Beautiful views at the Cat Island Coffee Shop inside Pass Christian Books!

Hugging my son, Jon, whom I hadn't seen in six months.

Hugging my son, Jon, whom I hadn’t seen in six months.

Returning to the Mississippi Delta

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s. It wasn’t until my freshman year at Ole Miss (1969-70) that I met people who lived in the Mississippi Delta. Several of my sorority sisters in Delta Delta Delta, as well as a close friend who lived in my dorm, were from Greenwood, Greenville, Indianola, and other small towns in this mystical part of our state. I say “mystical” because it always held a certain sway over my imagination. Going home with a girl from my pledge class to visit her family one weekend confirmed what I thought—her family’s stately homestead harked back to an era I had only read about.

contUp-img5Also during that year at Ole Miss I remember driving over to Greenville with my fiancé and some friends to eat at Doe’s Eat Place, famous for their steaks and down home atmosphere.

During the 1980s, my best friend in Jackson took me home with her to visit her family in Indianola. That was only the second time I spent the night in a Delta home. Her parents weren’t part of the “landed gentry.” They were hard-working middle class folks who owned and managed a sandwich business—rising early to prepare hundreds of fresh sandwiches for local schools and convenience stores. I watched this production one morning with much respect for their work ethic. They were such gracious people.

 

The beautiful interior at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi

The beautiful interior at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi

Fast forward about thirty years to my next trip to the Delta, around 2010. My husband was invited to speak to a group of physicians, who put the two of us up at the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood. What a fun experience! Viking was just putting in their cooking school and retail store, which wasn’t open yet, so I wandered around town and found Turnrow Books. What a magical place! Situated in a beautiful two-story historic building downtown, it had been restored and filled with literary treasures, as well as a lovely upstairs café.

A couple of years later, some time in 2012, I drove down from Memphis to hear my friend Joshilyn Jackson read from her new novel, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, at Turnrow. I had met Joshilyn five years earlier at the first ever Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi. Her writing style, rich, quirky characters, and clear grasp of the human condition drew me to her, and inspired me to start a novel. Finally—ten years later—my first novel Cherry Bomb is born, and I’ll be returning to Turnrow for a reading at 12 p.m. on August 26!

CB cover FINALCherry Bomb is set mostly in Georgia, rather than my home state of Mississippi. I wanted to put some distance between my personal life and the fictional life of the characters in the book, although many of my experiences fed the story. When people ask me what it’s about, I start with the short answer:

Cherry Bomb is about a graffiti writer, an abstract expressionist painter, and a nun, set mostly in Georgia in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s got weeping icons, art, and a bit of mystery, all in the Christ-haunted South.”

If they want to know more:

CHERRY BOMB chronicles the lives and suffering of three women whose fates are unexpectedly intertwined: MARE, a teen graffiti artist emerging from a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her cult-leading father and foster parents; ELAINE de KOONING, an Abstract Expressionist artist whose interactions with Mare dredge up painful memories of a shameful past; and SISTER SUSANNAH, an artist and nun whose reclusive tendencies belie her deep connection to the world around her. All three women converge around a weeping icon of St. Mary of Egypt, a 5th century prostitute whose awakening to grace leads her to ultimate salvation.

 I’m looking forward to returning to the Mississippi Delta on August 26, and I hope that people in the area who love literature will join me at Turnrow Books in Greenwood at 12 p.m.

Magical Time in South Carolina

Susan Pat Conroy center signOur visit to Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, this past Wednesday-Sunday was nothing short of magical. In five days we ate meals at five amazing restaurants (and dinner at Cassandra Kings home in Beaufort Saturday night); did a walking tour of historic Charleston with Bill’s friend from high school who has lived in Charleston for over forty years; Bill gave two medical lectures; I had two book signings at terrific independent bookstores, Buxton Books in Charleston and Nevermore Books in Beaufort; we visited the Pat Conroy Literary Center (in Beaufort) and met Executive Director Jonathan Haupt; and I had the opportunity to meet several authors and a literary agent I admire greatly.

At Nevermore Books in Beaufort, I was joined for a reading and signing of A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be by contributors Cassandra King, Susan Marquez, and NancyKay Wessman. Owner Lorrie Anderson was a fabulous hostess!

Cassandra Susan Susan NK

My favorite restaurant was Fulton Five, in downtown Charleston. It has won the “Most Romantic Restaurant” award 17 years in a row, and the atmosphere, service, and food were amazing. We were the guests of Dan and Ilene Lackland. Dan invited Bill to Charleston to give two lectures at the Medical University of South Carolina, and they were delightful hosts.

oysters at AmenOutdoor dining on the front porch at Cru Café and the patio at Blossom, both also dowtown Charleston, were both wonderful. At Cru we dined with Bill’s high school friends, Bill and Sally Wallace. At Blossom we were joined by Julien and Polly Buxton, owners of Buxton Books in Charleston.

Lunch at Amen Street (just Bill and I) was another favorite outing, with She Crab Soup and East Coast Oysters on the Halfshell. Breakfast Saturday morning with our friend (from Memphis) Julia Alissandratos was at Café Framboise, a short walk from Julia’s house near downtown Charleston. And I had lunch with author friend Nicole Seitz at Napa in Mount Pleasant, where Nicole lives, on Friday.

The (surprising) good news is that I only gained ½ pound! Maybe the walking helped.

Meeting John Warley at Nevermore Books in Beaufort

Meeting John Warley at Nevermore Books in Beaufort

Among the authors I met in Beaufort was John Warley, who wrote A Southern Girl, which I read last year, and loved. John and his wife adopted a daughter from South Korea, and the book is about some of the events circling around the social milieu in Charleston. Wonderful book and a delightful man. I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

0cc6d8_6728dfa9946a4d518af1d73afe67813dA Southern Girl was published by Story River Books, an imprint of the University of South Carolina Press, which was started by Pat Conroy.

So, why do I say it was “magical”? The trip combined so many of my favorite things in five short days: coastal sunsets, delicious seafood, bookstores, writers, old and new friendships, and several stimulating conversations with people who are very much in tune with their spiritual lives. I came home refreshed and renewed, as though I had been on a retreat. And inspired to get back to work on my next novel (which is in my head but only a few pages are drafted so far).

With my spring book tour winding down this week (17 events in 6 states in 3 months) and only one event scheduled for June/July, my plan is to use those first hot months of summer to stay inside with butt in chair and get a good chunk of this next book written. This is the hard part, but books don’t write themselves while we’re out having fun on tour. Stay tuned….

With Polly Buxton at Buxton Books in Charleston, signing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer's

With Polly Buxton at Buxton Books in Charleston, signing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s AND A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be

Sea Fever

3-year-old Gabby catches a wave during our 2015 beach trip

3-year-old Gabby catches a wave during our 2015 beach trip

We’re headed to my favorite place on earth Sunday—Seagrove Beach, Florida—for our (almost) annual family beach vacation. I’m so excited that all of our kids and grands will be there this year. Bill and I took a year off from this annual tradition last year, for our “bucket list” trip to Paris. But we did make it down for Thanksgiving last year (just the two of us). So, the last time we were there with any of our kids was in May of 2015, when our daughter Beth, her husband Kevin, and their three-year-old daughter Gabby joined us. Beth was pregnant with Izzy at the time. Here are some great pictures from that trip. So, this year there will be 7 adults and 4 kids, ages 7 ½, 6 ½, 5, and 20 months—Izzy’s first beach trip! Can’t wait! I always think about John Masefield’s poem, “Sea Fever” when I’m getting ready for the beach:

I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by; And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I love Kris Delmhorst’s musical version of “Sea Fever” on her wonderful CD “Strange Conversation.”  I’m listening to it now as I write this. Can’t wait to be there!

I only remember one beach trip with my family when I was a little girl. Most of our family vacations involved following my dad around golf courses and watching him play in (and often win) tournaments. Swimming in the pools at the various country clubs where he played was fun, but it wasn’t the ocean.

When our boys were 3 (Jason) and 6 (Jon) we took them to Destin for the first time. (Beth wasn’t with us yet.) And then later we took Jason and Beth to Hilton Head, South Carolina one summer when Jon was in school at St. Andrews-Sewanee. And we took all three kids to Kiawa once. But it wasn’t until November of 2006 that we went back to Florida with our grown son, Jon, to celebrate his graduation from flight school. This was our first trip to Seagrove Beach, Florida, which has become our favorite destination. I documented some of those earlier vacations in this post from 2010. We’ve been back with our kids and grands numerous times, and I spent three one-month writing retreats alone there, in 2011, 2012, and 2013. (It’s where I gave birth to Cherry Bomb, my novel that’s coming out in August.)

Our daughter Beth was married at Seagrove Beach in May of 2011. Next week we’ll be staying at a house right next door to the wedding venue. Lots of great memories….

I’ll close with a few photos. I might not be blogging from the beach next week… so please come back in May!

 

May 2013 (sunset photo taken at Seaside).

May 2013 (sunset photo taken at Seaside).

Father-daughter dance at Beth's wedding, May 2011, at Seagrove Beach

Father-daughter dance at Beth’s wedding, May 2011, at Seagrove Beach

On one trip (I think this was actually at Gulf Shores) I kept a watercolor journal....

On one trip (I think this was actually at Gulf Shores) I kept a watercolor journal….

November 2006... when I fell in love with Seagrove....

November 2006… when I fell in love with Seagrove….

November 2006

November 2006

Jason and Beth Kiawah

Jason and Beth Kiawah

Jon and Jason's first beach trip 1984

Jon and Jason’s first beach trip 1984

Dad, Mom, me 1956

Dad, Mom, me 1956 (can’t believe my parents let me go topless! I think my swimsuit straps hurt my sunburn….)

Me, Dad, Mike 1956

Me, Dad, Mike 1956

Time Was Soft There—Literary Gossip and Catnip for Book Junkies

55008Flying to and from Austin (through Atlanta, of course) gave me several extra hours of reading time this weekend, so I finished my third book of 2017:

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer

I had planned to write a book review today until I found a Kirkus Review that pretty much says what I would have said. I’ll add that when I was in Paris last May, I stopped into Shakespeare & Company right after visiting nearby Notre Dame Cathedral. Now I wish I had read this book before visiting the legendary store. I had no idea that people lived inside the store (for free) nor did I know any of the owner’s colorful history. Read the Kirkus Review for a quick summary. I’ll share the closing line here as a teaser:

Literary gossip, and catnip for book junkies.

Susan and JulieWe had a wonderful time in Austin at my first cousin, Julie Johnson’s wedding this weekend. What a beautiful city and surrounding areas—the wedding was held on a deck/patio high up at The Oasis at Lake Travis, with an incredible view of sailboats on the lake (temperatures in the 70s) and later, a windy and cloudy but powerful sunset. My husband and I also loved hanging out with two more of my first cousins (Jimmy and Johnny Jones from Jackson, Mississippi) during the weekend, so, as weddings often are, it was a fun reunion. Johnny remarked that it was great getting together for something other than a funeral, which is the main time we usually see each other! My husband and I had a great time shopping for his first pair of cowboy boots, and a new cowboy hat for me (I collect them from most cities I visit), which we wore to the wedding.

Now I’m back home in Memphis, enjoying editing the essays that are arriving in my inbox for next year’s anthology, So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing. I love my job. Have a great week!

 

me and Bill at sunset at The Oasis

me and Bill at sunset at The Oasis

First cousins: Johnny Jones, me, Jimmy Jones

First cousins: Johnny Jones, me, Jimmy Jones

The bride and groom: Julie and Blake Brice

The bride and groom: Julie and Blake Brice

Julie with her 19-year-old son, Colton, a rodeo-rider.

Julie with her 19-year-old son, Colton, a rodeo-rider.

Five Days in NOLA

SuBill Peche

I didn’t blog on Monday because I was having too much fun here in New Orleans. What a great city… especially in mid November when the highs are in the low to mid 70s and the humidity uncharacteristically low. I’m here with my husband, who is speaking at the American Heart Association’s 2016 Scientific Sessions. This is a huge meeting—Scientific Sessions attracts nearly 18,000 professional attendees, with a global presence from more than 100 countries. In addition, 2 million medical professionals participate virtually in lectures and discussions about basic, translational, clinical and population science. Bill has spoken twice during the five-day meeting. But he has found time to join me on an amazing culinary pilgrimage.

Bill, Tom, Ellen and me at Mariza

Bill, Tom, Ellen and me at Mariza

Friday night when we arrived we went to visit our friends Tom and Ellen Prewitt at their Bywater apartment in the Rice Mill Lofts for drinks on the rooftop. Then we went downstairs to Mariza – a wonderful Italian restaurant on the ground floor of their building. Fabulous atmosphere and food, and great to be with our Memphis-NOLA friends. (Tom and Ellen live around the corner from us in Memphis when they’re not at their NOLA location.)

Commanders groupCommander’s Palace is my favorite restaurant/experience in NOLA, hands down. We went for jazz brunch on Saturday with our son, Jonathan, and two of his (and our) friends, Nicole Marquez and Joe Gravier. Commander’s never fails to offer the best service, atmosphere, cocktails, and food. It didn’t hurt that we got a table on the patio and it was 72 degrees and sunny! Nicole was able to get the jazz group to play about six requests—she has that affect on people! Saturday night we ventured to Patois with Dr. Larry Fine, Bill’s friend from Washington, D.C., also in town for the AHA meeting. Another wonderful place, great atmosphere and food!

 

Galatoire’s was also great fun—on Sunday night, again with Jon. First he joined us at our hotel to watch the Saints vs. Broncos game, while Bill worked on his AHA presentations on his laptop. We cheered for the Saints since we were in town with our NOLA son, but when the Broncos won, we knew our Denver kids were celebrating. Galatoire’s was really our only visit to the French Quarter this trip, and Bourbon Street was hopping. The Saints fans didn’t seem to let their loss keep them from having a good time!

 

with Emma at Octavia Books

with Emma at Octavia Books

On Monday I had a great visit with my friend Emma Connolly, who moved to NOLA from Memphis a couple of years ago to open a shop, Uptown Needle and CraftWorks, on Magazine Street. I love Emma and Robert’s house in uptown. Emma is one of the contributors to the anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (coming in March 2017).  We visited Octavia Books to introduce ourselves and leave a press release for the book, hoping to give a reading/signing there in the spring. Wonderful bookstore—and of course I had to buy something. Two things, actually. A Christmas gift that I won’t describe here in case the receiver is reading, and the novel The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro, which I’ve been wanting to read. We had delicious crepes at Toast, just down the street from the bookstore.

Susan w graff outside Ogden

Maude Schuyler Clay at Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Maude Schuyler Clay at Ogden Museum of Southern Art

 

Next I stopped at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art to see my friend Maude Schuyler Clay’s photography exhibit, Mississippi History. I already had Maude’s wonderful book, which included many of the photos on exhibit, but there was something special about seeing the prints in person at the exhibit. She captures the souls of her subjects in such a beautiful, haunting way.

Outside the museum I was happy to discover this wall of graffiti done by NOLA graf writers.

mugAnd then I stopped into the coffee/gift shop at the Contemporary Art Center, just across the street from the Ogden. There is so much art in this city! I treated myself to a new coffee mug as a reminder of my visit

Monday night Jonathan joined us again, this time for dinner at Emeril’s, which is only a block from our hotel. I had never been, and again the atmosphere, service, and food did not disappoint.

"Abstraction" by Will Henry Stevens, ca.1940

“Abstraction” by Will Henry Stevens, ca.1940

 

On Tuesday I ventured out again (it’s pretty easy to drive around New Orleans, by the way) to the Paris Parker Salon on Prytania for a shampoo and blow out (and picked up a few Christmas gifts—it’s an Aveda salon). “Andrea” did my hair when I was here back in June, and it was fun feeling like one of her “regulars.” (She also does the head chef at Comander’s Palace’s hair, which I’ve never seen, but his food is great!)  Next I drove out to City Park to stroll around the lakes and enjoy the breeze and the ducks and geese. NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) is in the Park, so I spent about an hour there, appreciating their permanent collection but loving their abstract exhibits, with works by Picasso, Modigliani, Miro, and others. I discovered New Orleans abstract artist Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949). Like Kandinsky, Stevens viewed painting as an almost spiritual experience, a way of connecting people to a universal truth.

beignetsI ended my visit to City Park at Morning Call, where I ate all three beignets covered in powdered sugar with my coffee while enjoying a nice breeze on the patio.

Next I found my way back to Magazine Street to drop by Uptown Needle and CraftWorks and browse a few more shops. (Yes, more Christmas gifts, and a couple of happies for myself.)

Streetcar Spritzer on the porch at The Columns Hotel

Streetcar Spritzer on the porch at The Columns Hotel

Then at three o’clock, when the porch opens at The Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, I was there, enjoying a Streetcar Spritzer while reading a book Emma loaned me—Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini. I was interested in this book, published twenty-five years ago, because I’m editing a similar collection with exclusively Southern contributors (coming out in 2018). I especially enjoyed the Foreword, and essays by Richard Ford and Gail Godwin. Pack and Parini say, in the Foreword, “… the essays all

at The Columns on St. Charles

at The Columns on St. Charles

reveal an underlying commitment to writing as a craft, something that can be passed on from generation to generation of writers, and to the notion of literature as a place where values are tested, where ideas are bodied forth, where the only limits are those enforced by the limits of a writer’s own imagination: limits that, by the paradox of art, make the production possible.” Reading those words got me excited about writing an introduction for my Southern writers anthology!

Su door PecheTuesday night Bill and I had reservations at Peche, which we always enjoy when we’re in NOLA. (Peche has won at least two James Beard awards.) One of the owner/chefs, Ryan Prewitt, is Tom Prewitt’s son. (We had dinner with Tom and Ellen on Friday, remember?) I love how connected our visit has been. So, we arrive at Peche (a short walk from our hotel) just before 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night in November, and the bar crowd is flowing out into the street and every table is full. We always enjoy the whole fish, but we especially loved the oysters on the hall shell.

Bill oysters pecheWe decided to try six Louisiana oysters and six from Alabama. I liked the ‘Bama oysters the best, but they were all delicious! It was November 15… the 47th anniversary of our engagement! Why November 15? It was the night Ole Miss beat Tennessee 38-0 in Jackson, Mississippi. “Archie Who?” (Romantic, right?)

Today is our last day here. After I finish this post, I’m heading over to the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk (a few blocks from our hotel) to do a little more Christmas shopping. Tonight will be our only evening meal that we didn’t plan ahead of time. Our friends Emma and Robert recommended Mandina’s on Canal Street. They don’t take reservations, so I think we’ll show up and see what happens. Tomorrow we’ll drive home to Memphis, stopping at the cemetery in Jackson to visit Mom and Dad, my brother Mike, and my Goddaughter Mary Allison. I know they aren’t really there—but I always feel closer to them when I visit their graves. This has really been a wonderful vacation, even for Bill, who has mixed business with pleasure in his usual seamless way. Thanks for reading—I hope you enjoyed my little travelogue, and can find your way to some of these great places the next time you visit New Orleans!

Traveling the World With Poet Jennifer Horne

Little Wanderer coverMy friend Jennifer Horne is a poet. She’s published several books of poetry, and also a collection of short stories. She’s also a traveler. The cover of her latest book, Little Wanderer, features a seventeenth century map of Iceland and the Faroe Islands surrounded by a sea of monsters. The image is mystical, like the poet whose latest words wait inside the covers of the book, poised to take the reader on journeys to Greece, Italy, Bucharest, Prague, Amsterdam, England, and back home to less exotic but no less colorful places like Arkansas and Alabama.

My personal favorites were in the section on Greece—probably because I’ve made two trips to Greece—as a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy I was on pilgrimage—and I have such vivid memories that were called to mind by Horne’s poems, especially the section called “Evil Eye.” In Meteora, she shows a woman’s grief over losing someone to a monastic call:

. . . We must sacrifice, you say, for the Lord.

Here I lie, your sacrifice, your lamb—

yet you walk ever higher up that rocky path,

never looking back, eyes set on the company of old men.

And later, in “Greece, I Love You, But You’re Making Me Crazy,” she explores issues of gender in her frustration that only men (and by the way, only male animals) are allowed on Mount Athos:

Still, you haven’t allowed me

            Onto Mount Athos

Or almost a thousand years!

            Are my female parts

So very frightening?

 

You say I’m impure

            But you throw your trash

out the window.

Horne captures another side of life in Greece in “Letter from an Athenian Wife,” in which a woman bemoans her place: “But Mother, the solitude! My servants have a better life,/meeting to chatter as they fill the water jugs, helping/one another in childbirth and sickness….”

As she turns her pen towards visits to Italy (where my husband and celebrated our fortieth anniversary—a trip all about the beauty of the land, the people, and the food) I loved her “Postscript to Paradise,” in which she takes the reader through her journey as a poet to a place of happiness:

. . . Do I say I’ve weathered the pain,

this ship of mine has reached calm harbor? I will say,

looking out my window at nothing much, I am happy just

            to love the world again.

Perhaps my favorite poem in the book for the sheer joy of its rhythm and fun of reading was “Abbastanza.” With a Dr. Seuss-type beating of her pen’s drum, she makes me want to buy that cottage in a village in Italy.

Heading East, Horne takes us to Bucharest with several poems revealing darkness and fear (“Night Watch: Bucharest, Revisited”) which transports the reader from Bucharest back to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1960. If that connection seems odd, you must get this book and read these poems in sequence to follow her emotional journey. The title poem, “Little Wanderer,” takes us vividly to Prague, as does “Sudek’s Studio.” Again, I loved this because of my own trip to Prague, where I remember with Horne, “walking down to the Old Town,/the Charles Bridge,/ clock tower, town hall….” And then there’s “Musee,” where Horne shows us how viewing nudes can help us feel more comfortable with our own bodies. (I had a similar experience in Italy once.)

Horne brings us back to the States with “Local Honey,” in which she remembers a time in her youth: “I’m always welcome . . ./soon gears shift/and I am twenty,/kissing Sam Fiasca/as we drive down Cantrell Hill/in his 1950-something/brown Ford pick-up….”

Jennifer Horne

Jennifer Horne

She switches gears with her ekphrastic piece, “Talisman,”—after a sculpture by Susan Perry and then gives us another glimpse of her soul in “Sound Over Water.”
It’s difficult to review this book without mentioning each and every poem. What a treasure. And what a joy to read it today, on the day after the presidential election, when my heart needed to take a journey away from all the craziness. Thank you for this gift, Jennifer.

Give yourself a gift—buy this book and enjoy the journeys inside. Or give it as a Christmas gift to someone who loves to travel, or just loves good poetry.

Mental Health Monday: The Best Medicine for Grief

This post is a day late because I was traveling home from Denver yesterday, where we just spent the weekend with two of our kids and all four granddaughters. Celebrating Izzy’s first birthday and Anna’s sixth, and also enjoying Gabby (4) and Grace (7) and their folks so much.I feel that I might have turned a corner on the grief and depression I’ve been struggling with all summer. I’m not saying it’s over, but I’m learning to let it be. I’m also learning not to completely crash, emotionally, over the fact that I’ve gained back some of the weight I worked so hard to lose this past year. I understand that I was eating and drinking to comfort my loss, but I’m ready to let go of some of that and move forward today. Being with our family (all except Jon, whom we miss!) this weekend was the best medicine! So I’m not going to write any more on this post, but simply share some pictures. How can I not be happy, right?

Anna Susu Grace

Anna Gabby slide 2

Pops Izzy

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Anna Gabby

Izzy feeding doll

izzy drinking doll bottle

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