>The Poet’s Memoir: Truth vs. Accuracy


The March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine arrived today, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

Frank Bures’ short piece in the “Trend” section caught my eye first: “I Google Myself, Therefore I Am.” Before I started this blog (August 2007) I must admit I didn’t get the whole internet community thing. I thought only teenagers and lonely single people were into it, and I smugly thought, “it’s for people who don’t have a real life.”

And then I met Joshilyn Jackson at a writers conference and she encouraged me to create a blog in order to have a “presence” online. And that when my first book (what an assumption!) is accepted by a publisher, I should create a web site. Okay. Those are good marketing tools. But Bures gets to the heart of the matter:

I Google myself to see what kinds of waves my life is making in the world. Isn’t that why writers, artists, and other insecure egomaniacs obsess over the Amazon rankings of their books, the comments on their blogs, the hits on their Web sites?

Oh, my gosh. Are all writers and artists that insecure? I’m finding myself embarrassed by how much I identify with his words. I even put a hit counter on my blog so I’ll know how many folks are reading it. And again I think, “but is this the real world?” Bures’ answer:

As society becomes more isolating and we have less contact with the lives of the people around us, the more we need the Internet to tell us what our communities used to: that our existence means something to someone else on this planet. What we used to see reflected back in the eyes of the people around us, we now look for on the computer screen…. That we are out there somewhere, and that somehow, it matters.

I know that for many, the artist and writer’s life is an isolated one. I struggle daily to spend several hours alone to work on my crafts, whether writing or painting icons. But I also crave interaction with my fellow humans. That’s one reason I value my critique groups and enjoy writing workshops. And of course, nothing replaces the human touch of my family and closest friends. But they’re not always there, and well, the Web is always only a touch away….

But it was Mark Doty’s article, “Bride in Beige,” that really got me excited. Mark is the author of seven poetry collections, but his article is about “A Poet’s Approach to Memoir.” This is timely for me as I’m going to Oxford tomorrow for the four day Creative Nonfiction Conference. I’ll be in manuscript critique workshops with Dinty Moore on Thursday (and he’s reading from his memoir, Between Panic and Desire, at the Thacker Mountain Radio Show Thursday night!) and Kristen Iversen on Friday. Then the general conference sessions are on Saturday and Sunday. There will even be an opportunity on Saturday to pitch my nonfiction book ideas to agents and editors. Deep breath. But now, back to Doty’s piece.

Most creative nonfiction instructors harp on the importance of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. You just can’t make stuff up. Well, you can, and they call that fiction. The shady ground in between is what got James Frey in so much trouble .

And just this past weekend at our monthly critique group gathering, one of our members was struggling with her memoir-in-progress, because there are areas she can’t remember clearly or is tempted to make more exciting, to spice it up, with a little…. well, fiction. I was saying you can’t do that. But listen to the poet, Mark Doty:

Memoirs operate under the sign of truth. Is this true of poetry? Yes and no….poems are after truth, seeking a kind of emotional veracity; they wan to get at essential stuff and will use whatever means necessary to do so. Similarly the poet’s memoir is after truth, while nonfiction based in journalism or even traditional fictional practice tends to be after accuracy.

There you have it. The journalists are after accuracy. The poets are after truth. I think there’s much to be learned by approaching creative nonfiction, and specifically the memoir, through the poet’s eyes:

Poets understand, of course, that you look into experience to see what you can find there, that there is always more to see and that you may actually be better off without a compelling story. What you’re writing is not about “what happened,” it’s about the experience of happening.

The experience of happening. This is so exciting for those of us who sometimes read someone else’s memoir, like Anne Lamott’s or Haven Kimmel’s, and think, “Oh, but my life isn’t that interesting.” But if we look at our lives through the poet’s eyes, we can write about the “experience of happening.”

But what does Doty say about the ethical responsibilities of the nonfiction writer?

This is not to suggest that memoir is a liar’s holiday, free of ethical obligation…. I want to suggest that beyond the personal ethics of memoir—and beyond the matter of accuracy, there’s a higher ethical standard, which has to do with the ethics of art: that what is made is commensurate with the real.

The ethics of art. A higher calling? Maybe, but….

And here’s where making things up comes in: There is only a degree to which the narration of history can do the work of achieving something as dimensional as reality is. … Narration has a tendency to flatten out the depths of things…. “Making things up” is very imprecise. I mean by that phrase a host of things: eliding some moments; juxtaposing others because they resonate together or comment upon one another; stretching time out in certain instances; trying to look more deeply into a moment… reaching into the inner life of a dream.

I’m wondering what my instructors at the workshop this weekend will have to say about truth vs. accuracy in memoir-writing. I’m out of here at 6:30 in the morning for my drive down to Oxford…. Stay tuned for a report in a few days!

>Sophie’s Choice and Orthodoxy Goes West

>Today is our Goddaughter, Sophie’s 5th birthday. We marked the day with a big event in Sophie’s young life. Well, actually we did it yesterday. First we took Sophie to lunch at the restaurant of her choice. She chose Rafferty’s, for baby back ribs. The ribs were yummy, but the service was slow, which didn’t really matter since we were spending time with our Goddaughter. While we waited she and Father Basil played tic-tac-toe and we talked about important stuff. (Stuff too important for a blog post.)

And then we said goodbye to Father B and headed to Claire’s at Oak Court Mall. Sophie’s mom had told her she could get her ears pierced when she turned five. The big day was here. I had agreed to have mine (re)pierced with her, since I hadn’t worn earrings in about twenty five years and the holes had grown back. Here’s a cute video by two little girls who got theirs done at Claire’s. And here’s a video about how to take care of them afterwards. (Makes me glad I’m not the mother of the five-year-old at this point….)

When we got to Claire’s, we watched a little girl and her European grandmother getting their ears pierced first. Well, the grandmother was getting one of hers re-pierced, as it had grown back. She was an elegant woman. Beautifully dressed. Her American granddaughter, about eight years old, was in blue jeans and a ponytail. There was a brief discussion between the woman doing the piercing and the grandmother about legal guardianship and “rights” to have her minor granddaughter’s ears pierced, and then they proceeded without a hitch.

When they were finished, I told Sophie I’d go first and we giggled and held hands and talked about being scared. We picked out our piercing studs (the initial earrings they would place in our ears that we would wear for 10 days or until the ears healed). Sophie chose diamonds, of course. (She’s already the Queen of Bling.) I chose white gold balls. The lady marked my ears and placed the “gun” on my left ear and pow! It was over. Only a slight twinge of pain. Sophie watched with big eyes. After finishing my other ear, it was Sophie’s turn. Suddenly she got cold feet, so I picked her up and held her in my lap as the lady pinned her hair back and marked her ears with a purple marker. But when she started crying, I said, “Sophie, this is your choice. If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.”
“Can we come back tomorrow?” she asked.
“No, if you don’t want to do this today, you’ll have to wait until you’re older.”
“Can we go shopping for clothes instead?”
This was tricky. I knew my answer would be pivotal. So I took a deep breath and said, “No. If you go home without your new earrings, you’ll be sad. It doesn’t hurt. Let’s just do it!”
A beautiful black woman and her teenage daughter were watching, and the mother said to Sophie, “how old are you?”
Sophie held up five fingers.
“Oh. You don’t want to be six years old and be at school and not have your ears pierced, do you?”
She shook her head no and then told the lady to go ahead. She proceeded with one ear. Sophie looked surprised that it didn’t hurt. Then the other ear. Suddenly she looked up at me and a smile came across her face. She looked at the lady and said, “thank you!”

We both picked out some earrings to change into once the ten-day healing period was over. While we were waiting to pay, we watched a Hispanic family bring a baby in for her piercing. It looked like the mother, father, aunts, uncles, and older siblings were all there. Kinda’ reminded me of a baptism. The baby girl, who couldn’t have been over six months old, was held in her mother’s arms for the procedure, and let out a big cry when each ear was pierced. The family cheered and took pictures. Sophie looked at me and said, “the baby wasn’t brave, was she? Did she really want to have her ears pierced?”

I tried to explain that in some cultures this was something that was just decided by the parents. Sophie’s parents are from Syria and Iraq, and I don’t really know how young they pierce ears in those countries. But in the course of less than an hour’s time, we watched as Europeans, blacks, Hispanics, whites and middle-easterners crowded the small space at Claire’s Boutique in Memphis, Tennessee for this universal ritual. And Sophie and I left together, hand-in-hand, with big smiles on our faces. Feeling quite beautiful.

All that happened on Sunday afternoon. Now let’s back up to Friday night for a photo essay. A group of talented folks at my church, St. John Orthodox in Memphis, put on an original musical, “Orthodoxy Goes West,” for our annual dinner theater. It was a fund-raiser. We decorated the fellowship hall and tables, cooked homemade chili, donated long-necks and homemade desserts for a dessert auction at the end of the night, and everyone dressed in Western attire.

The play was based on the musical “Oklahoma.” It was about a young mouse named Barsanuphius, but his nickname was Bubba. His brother back in the old country had been the star in last year’s dinner theater production, “Don’t It Make Ya Feel Small, Y’all?”

Anyway, Bubba comes into town looking for his lost faith… for a religion he could embrace. He’s introduced to Orthodoxy by the cast of characters who sing and dance their way into our hearts, and Bubba’s. The play included appearances by “cradle” Orthodox from Greek and Arab ancestry, as well as “converts” from Protestant beginnings.

A good time was had by all, as you can see from these photos. It’s hard to tell the cast from the audience, and I’ll be adding some of these to my permanent photo collection of “hats” on the left side of my blog.

And here’s my favorite boots of the night. I could only wear one cowboy boot, since I still have my boot-cast on my (healing) left foot. But it was a start.
So… just scroll down to keep looking at pictures. And come back in a few days for a report on the Yoknapatawpha Writing Group’s monthly critique meeting… this time at Doug’s lake house just outside of Tupelo, Mississippi…. And hopefully another book review. Thanks for reading!

>She Can’t Possibly Be Eighty, Because…

>. . . well, because that would mean that I’m pushing sixty. Or, fifty-seven… but what’s all this ado about age, anyway? This is really about mothers. And daughters. And birthdays.

I went to Jackson (Mississippi) yesterday to celebrate my mom’s 80th birthday. I was going to give her a party, but she asked me not to. And when I got to her assisted living home early Wednesday afternoon, the staff had just celebrated her birthday at lunch with balloons and everything. But she didn’t remember. Alzheimer’s is like that, even in the early stages.

But she was happy to see me. And she loved the blouses and slippers. And the chocolates that my friend, Sue, gave her. Sue drove me down so I could keep my foot propped up in the backseat since it still tends to swell when it’s not elevated.

First we drove around our old neighborhood and showed Sue (and Mom) the house we built when I was seven. I think she recognized it. And the school I went to from second through sixth grades. We drove up and down the streets of our old neighborhood. I pointed out the houses where our friends lived. The McCreights. The Sumralls. She remembered their names.

Then we took her to Starbucks for lattes, which she loved. Here she is picking out coffee cake from the pastry counter. And watching the cute little kids in their private pre-school uniforms who came in with their mommies.

This is me and mom sharing some chocolate chip coffee cake.

Later we picked up some wine and shared a toast with her at her apartment and said goodbye.

On our drive back to Memphis, Sue was asking me about my childhood, and we talked about mothers and daughters. Recently a friend told me that she was really close to her grandparents because her parents were too much into their own drama to pay attention to her. This is kind of like what Kim Sunee says in her book, Trail of Crumbs (which I’ll be reviewing here soon)… about her adoptive mother, being too self-absorbed to care about her. Kim, too, was drawn to her grandparents, who seemed to want to spend time with her. My kids could probably say the same about me. God forgive me.

Maybe it’s just the nature of the generations. While mothers are too busy trying to find themselves, grandmothers bond with their children. I don’t remember my mother being self-absorbed. I just don’t remember us being close. But I was really close to her mother, Mamaw. So when I got home today I got out some photo albums and looked at pictures from my childhood… looking for clues.

I found this one, taken on Christmas morning, 1959. God, my mother was beautiful. She was 31. I’ve got on my new red silk nightgown and robe that I got for Christmas that year. My brother Mike and even my Dad have on their jammies. And then there’s Mom, dressed to the nines and looking like a movie-star, first thing on Christmas morning.

She’s still beautiful. And now she takes me around her assisted living home and introduces me to everyone as her “little girl.” And she smiles her movie-star smile.

I just kiss her and tell her I love her.

Happy birthday, Mom.

>More Windows to Heaven

>This weekend Dimitry Shkolnik, Russian iconographer who resides in California, installed six new icon panels on the walls at our parish, St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis. What a joy it was to participate with many fellow parishioners on Saturday, preparing the walls, measuring, cutting, hanging, pressing out the extra glue, smoothing out air bubbles, and at the end of the day, standing back in awe of these beautiful works of liturgical art.

The next day, several of us continued to work with Dimitri, painting the hematite red borders around the new icon panels. They’re not quite finished, as you can see in some of these photos of festal icons. Borders around the two larger icon panels, containing four saints each, were completed.

Dimitry’s work is stunning. Very traditional, Byzantine Orthodox in style. The colors are rich, even festive. These panels are done in acrylics, although Dimitry also works in egg tempera.
Icons are sometimes called “windows to heaven,” because they open for us a mystical passageway carved out by the lives of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us. We venerate the saints (or Christ or His Mother) whose images are drawn, but we don’t worship the image.

The icons that were installed this weekend include:

Nativity of the Theotokos (Mother of God)
Presentation of the Theotokos
Dormition of the Theotokos
Elevation of the Cross

Venerable Olympia the New Martyr
Saint Mary Magdalen
Saint Raphael of Brooklyn
Saint Elizabeth

Saint Pantelemon
Apostle Andrew
Saint Spyridon
Saint John of Damascus

My photographs are kind of dark… as the lighting in the back of the nave isn’t great, and photos using a flash often wash out the colors. But at least you can get an idea of the process of installing the icon panels, which were painted on large pieces of canvas at Dimitry’s studio in California and then brought to Memphis for the installation.

Working together as fellow parishioners to help Dimitry was a great joy and honor to everyone involved. He’ll be back in about a year with many more icons to fill the “white space” in the altar area, and to do some decorative painting to help tie each section together. Dimitry is also trained as an architect, and is a graduate of Holy Trinity Monastery, so he brings technical and spiritual training to his work as an iconographer.

Our first icons at Saint John were installed about fifteen years ago, by a different iconographer. With each addition of these “windows to heaven” our temple becomes a more complete image of the heavenly one.

Thanks so much, Dimitry (at right with me at the end of the day on Sunday) for sharing your gift with us. We’ll see you in a year, God willing.

Here’s Dimitry with our pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, discussing plans for the icons in the altar area.

>Thacker Mountain Radio Show

>Thursday was a wonderful day. On the lighter side, my left foot got out in the sunshine a bit (sans cast-boot) after a pedicure and polish with my favorite color, “Caffeinated.” Ahhh…. Here are those toes on my patio. Big toe is looking pretty straight (and yeah, the scar is healing) and feeling better every day, thank God.

Our Valentine’s outing to Oxford was delightful. The Thacker Mountain Radio Show at Off Square Books was great fun. My husband had a good time catching up with Square Books Owner (and the Mayor of Oxford) Richard Howorth. They were fraternity brothers at Ole Miss, almost 40 years ago, and hadn’t seen each other since 1970. Here’s a nice article about Square Books in Vanity Fair …and a picture of Richard and his wife, Lisa, at their bookstore (left).
The show was a combination of musical guests, Giant Bear and the Jake Leg Stompers, and a third group whose name I’m sorry to say I didn’t get. Some of them were from Memphis, but I hadn’t heard them play before. Funkabilly and bluegrass and… fun. Giant Bear did a pretty good rendition of “Jolene.” (at right)

But the main reason for our trip was to meet Kim Sunée and hear her read from her book, Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love and the Search for Home. (Kim was adopted from South Korea when she was three.) I’m reading it now and will do a full review later.

She and Sara Roahen, author of Gumbo Tales, took the stage together, commenting on each other’s books, life in New Orleans, and the place food plays in our life journeys. It was the most interesting and creative book reading I’ve ever attended. Afterwards we bought autographed books, then joined one of my writing group buddies, Patti Trippeer, for dinner at Boure before driving back to Memphis. Talk about a small world… during dinner I learned that Patti and a high school friend of mine from Jackson (MS) are cousins! I’ve known A.B. (Clark) Nichols (right) since ninth grade, and I only met Patti last summer. The South really is just one big small town!

Oh, and I forgot to share my Valentine’s Day roses from my sweet husband. He put them in the vase that my dear friend, Urania, gave us for our anniversary last summer. It was one of her original wedding gifts. Every year on their anniversary, Andy (her husband) would bring her roses and put them in this same vase. I think of Urania and Andy every time I get roses for the vase now.

That’s all for today, folks…. tune in next week for more book reviews and photos of iconographer, Dimitri Shkolnik, installing new icons at our church this weekend! Here are some of his smaller icons, on an iconostasis at another church. These are truly holy images.

>Valentine’s Day Wisdom from Saint John Chrysostom and skirt! Magazine: Love, Forgiveness and Trail of Crumbs

>Today is the 37th Valentine’s Day my husband and I have spent together as a married couple. Prior to that we celebrated two Valentine’s Days as teenagers in love. It’s hasn’t been all champagne and roses (though there have been plenty of both) but I think we’re entering our “golden years” …. This morning when I went to our icon corner to say my morning prayers, I first read this quote from today’s Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar (from the Orthodox Calendar Company):

When husband and wife are united in marriage, they no longer seem like something earthly, but rather like the image of God Himself.Saint John Chrysostom

And then I read about one of the saints commemorated on February 14: Damian the New. He was a martyr, from sixteenth-century Arahova. We visited his beautiful little mountain town (Arahova) in Greece this past October, in the Parnassus Mountains, near Delphi. In fact, we saw the first snow of the season (on the mountains behind us in this picture) and also went to Vespers at the nearby Monastery of Ossios Loukas. You can read more about this visit in my blog post of October 24, here.

And now for a smooth segue from saints to skirts… the February issue of skirt! Magazine has two thoughtful essays. The first one that caught my attention was “Loving Unlovable People,” by Patti Digh. It’s a story of learning to forgive an “inventive and dazzling teacher” who was sent to prison in 2002 for “hundreds of counts of first degree statutory sexual offense, sexual activity with students by a school teacher, and first degree kidnapping of two male students.”

As Digh says, “What happens to a life?” As she grieves the loss of this person who had a positive impact on her young life, she considers whether or not to reach out to him by writing him a letter. Her confusion, grief and compassion touched me:

I don’t condone what Mr. Snow did and am repelled by his actions….I wish his life had taken such a different trajectory, he is so talented. But it went in this direction, and now Mr. Snow is Inmate #0787172. But he is still under there somewhere, the Mr. Snow I knew. Isn’t he? I’m not sure what writing to Mr. Snow will mean for either one of us, but I do know that in reaching out to him and extending love to him, I have found an important part of myself. He is providing me a glimpse into a world I would otherwise not know; I am a link to the world out here. Together we are navigating the difficult part of loving others.

What a brave love story. There’s a wonderful man at my church who has ministered to prisoners for many years. He has brought a number of those prisoners to St. John when they were released, and one has become a member. I’ve learned a lot about love from this gentle soul who has given his life reaching out to people like Mr. Snow… believing, like Patti Digh, that they are “still under there somewhere.”

The second story in the February issue of skirt! that struck a chord with me was Dorothy Cresswell’s “Bridge of Forgiveness.” It’s not available online at the skirt! web site, but if you see a copy of the February issue in a newsstand, you might want to pick it up to read this. It’s about a divorced husband and wife coming together to celebrate one of their grandchildren’s birthdays. An event at which they shared tears, apologies, forgiveness and hugs. Cresswell reflects on her x-husband at the end of the party:

He was truly a good man who had a drinking problem and lost everything he loved…. Today I realize that I love that man; that hurting, healing, loving man. I do not want to live with him. I know that would never work now. But I do love that tender soul who loves my children and grandchildren. I love that we have lived to apologize. I love that there is another soul on this planet who remembers what my daughter looked like at one year old.

If you don’t have any Kleenex nearby, just use your shirt sleeve… I did.

I’ll close with a teaser for my next post: in lieu of chocolate and flowers, my husband is taking me to Oxford (Mississippi) tonight for the Thacker Mountain Radio Show. It was my request. The music and atmosphere will be fun (it’s at Off Square Books) but I especially want to meet Kim Sunee and hear her read from her book, Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love and the Search for Home. Her blog is here. Kim’s a Korean adoptee, like my two younger “children” (now 25 and 26). I’ve already emailed her about meeting her tonight and getting autographed copies of her book for my kids and me. Maybe I’ll have some photos and comments from the evening to post in a couple of days.

I’ll close on a lighter note. This is the Valentine’s Day card I sent to my childhood friend, Jan, who lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Jan was one of the first of my women-friends to ever say to me, “put your big girl panties on and deal with it.” I can take that from Jan… we’ve known each other since we were eight and nine years old. She was Maid of Honor in my wedding (when we were a big, grown up 18 and 19 years old!) We’ve both lived through some pretty dysfunctional family stuff (our families were “best friend families” in the 50s and 60s) and have nursed mothers with Alzheimer’s. So, much love to Jan, and all my family and friends on this day of love and forgiveness. And Happy Feast Day to Saint Damian the New!

>Toe Story 3 and Between Panic and Desire

>(If you missed the beginning of the saga of the toe, you can catch up by clicking on any of the links in this paragraph.) Yesterday I made my fourth visit to Campbell Clinic in five weeks. The surgery was on January 8. The second cast was two weeks later. A third cast (at my request, due to discomfort) was applied a week later. And finally, x-rays revealed what I hoped and prayed, the surgery seems to have been successful. The toe is straight. The bunion is gone. And now I’m out of that *#@%!* cast forever.

Instead, I get to wear this lovely number for three weeks. It’s a removable boot-cast, and I don’t even have to sleep in it. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was for that foot to feel the cool, soft sheets of my bed last night. (This was after a long soaky bath and peeling off layers and layers of gross dead skin. Ugh.)

Learning to walk with the boot is another challenge, as it’s taller than any shoe I have to wear on the right foot for balance, so I look like hop-along as I saunter through the house. (I haven’t ventured out yet.) I find myself anxiously looking about for my crutches and then remember, oh, yeah, I don’t need them anymore. So…. Stay tuned for a follow-up post in three weeks, when I (hopefully) get to lose the boot and learn to walk on my own.

One of the perks of recovering from surgery is the “down time” for reading and writing. Three new essays are safely in the tender loving hands (or computers) of my writers critique group, which meets this weekend. And another essay has been sent to Dinty Moore, the instructor for one of the workshops I’ll be taking at the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford February 28-March 2. I thought it would be helpful to get to know Dinty’s style a little bit before the conference, so I just read his latest book of essays, Between Panic and Desire. It’s a nice balance for me, for several reasons:

He’s a man, and he writes from a very masculine perspective. He’s only 4 years younger than me, so we grew up during the same era. But he grew up in the north, while I was trying to bloom in the south. And he tripped (literally) through the 60s and 70s with lots of political fervor and activist energy, while I was oblivious to most of the issues that didn’t affect my struggle for popularity or my plans for the weekend.

My father was a delegate (from Mississippi) to the Republican National Convention in 1960, so that tells you something about the political atmosphere in which I grew up. And while I didn’t even begin to think for myself about politics until recent years (I’ve been a bit distracted) I do remember being disappointed that my dad didn’t run for political office at the time, when he was encouraged to by lots of folks. I just thought I would have liked the limelight. To be the daughter of a senator or representative. Thank God we don’t always get what we wish for!

Back to Dinty Moore’s book. These quotes, from his introduction, give a good preview of coming things, especially the things he lost:

An entire generation lived through the untimely death of JFK (lost a good father), the resignation of Tricky Dick (lost a dysfunctional dad), and the turmoil of Vietnam (lost our Uncle Sam). We’ve all spent years, or maybe decades, feeling fatherless, cynical, unmoored. …All that we know about Watergate and the subsequent cover-up toddles into the voting booth with us thirty years later; our experience with Vietnam—whether we fought, protested, or stood on the side-lines paralyzed by confusion—shapes our vision of every new military adventure the Washington yahoos dream up; and the tragedy of 9/11 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the Pennsylvania field down the road from where I live, will color wide swatches of our world for who knows how long.

Moore will talk about his own dad later in the book. I’ve read lots of memoirs where women talk about their mothers, but only a few that tell the son-father story, and it’s fascinating. I would have quit reading the book early on if Moore had come across preachy or arrogant, but his humility and humanness drew me in:

So, given that I don’t see clearly—that in fact, my vision is even more distorted than most (more on that later) —it makes some odd sense that I would write a memoir. I was there, after all; I misperceived it with my own eyes. Or maybe this isn’t a memoir. Perhaps it is a generational autobiography—a chronicle of those events most responsible for twisting our collective psyche over the past forty or so years, especially for those of us who remember where we were on the day Kennedy died. The first one.

I was in seventh grade at Chastain Junior High School in Jackson, Mississippi. And I was much too young and self-absorbed to understand why some people were crying and getting dismissed to go home from school early when I was worried about cheerleader tryouts and the upcoming seventh grade dance. And yes, I was a blonde. But I was also a kid, whose parents lived through the Great Depression and were trying to provide my brother and me with the Good Life.

So, Moore’s book isn’t exactly a walk down memory lane for me, but rather an example of unconventional creative nonfiction writing. Some of the chapters read a bit like prose poetry. Others, like “Son of Mr. Green Jeans, a Meditation of Missing Fathers,” is an alphabetical listing of people and events that affected Moore’s formative years. His paranoia comes to life in the Chapter 9: “Number Nine” —a plethora of conspiracy theories developed around the numbers 9 and 11.

And if you’re wondering about the title of the book, Panic and Desire are actually the names of two small towns in Pennsylvania. (This reminded me of Joshilyn Jackson’s book, Between, Georgia, which is named after a town in Georgia.) Dinty drove into each town, trying to find out why they were named “Panic” and “Desire,” but no one seemed to know, not even at the libraries. So he drove to the halfway point between the two towns, got out of his car, and:

… it is here that I finally realize I don’t want the actual answer, the truth of where those towns found their names. The mystery is sweeter. I just bask in the unknown for a while, alone on the road, halfway between Panic and Desire. Until it occurs to me: I have been here all my life.

Near the end of the book, he begins to let go of some of his panic:

When you stop beating your head against the wall, your head miraculously feels better. I had a father—not Mr. Green Jeans, not Mr. Nixon—but a real one, and much of what has been difficult in my life connects directly to his drinking and his absence. (If not, there’s a string of therapists spread across the country who owe me refunds.) But if my demons and disappointments are attributable to Buddy, as everyone called him, then much of what’s gone right must be attributable to him as well. You can’t just give the man half credit. I’ll thank my Mom here, too. Nobody’s perfect. The point is this: These days I’m inclined to value the entirety, each piece of it. I’m starting to appreciate that my losses, let-downs, and wasted years were precisely what kicked me down the road like a bent tin can, until I ended right here, at this very spot, which is a good place to be if for no other reason that the fact that I made it. So life wasn’t perfect…. “So it goes,” Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator repeats throughout “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and for the moment I’m hard-pressed to come up with a better piece of wisdom.

I knew he would be a Vonnegut fan. But I didn’t know he would come full circle with his “Final Chapter”:

This idea—value the crap in your life because that’s what got you here, and if you’re still here, well that’s a good thing—works for the larger picture as well. Leaders die, presidents lie, nations clash, and terrorist madmen frighten us out of our wits. Hazy-dazy dreamers from the Summer of Love somehow morph into flabby baby boomers whose glasses are half-filled with either dentures or martinis… History kicks us like a bent can down the road of panic and desire, and so we go, misperceiving wildly, onward to the next disaster.

As I return to reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith for my next chapter review (reviews of earlier chapters are here, here, and here) I can’t help but notice some similarities in Harris and Moore’s political views. But I approach The End of Faith with a bit of dread because, well, because I’m finding it dreadfully lacking in humor (which abounds in Moore’s writing) and more significantly, in hope. And now that I’m finally footloose (from the cast) I’m just not wanting anything to weigh me down right now. Watching the Beatles’ music being celebrated on the Grammy’s Sunday night, I realized that they fell extremely short with their hit song, “All You Need is Love.” You also need Faith and Hope. But yes, the greatest of these is Love. Check back on Valentine’s Day for more on that!

>Sausage Biscuit


Thursday was a lovely day. I wore my new retro dress to our monthly women’s gathering, where our pastor leads a lively “teaching” session. One of my favorite people, Anne, has been hosting the gatherings in her home since Urania died last October. Urania gave a set of her china—the china she always used to serve coffee and sweets at her house—to Anne. Sunshine was pouring into Anne’s den, which has floor to ceiling windows looking out into a beautiful courtyard. We sat in a circle, drinking from Urania’s china, enjoying stimulating spiritual conversation and delightful company.

Afterwards, we went to Bronte’s (the café inside Davis Kidd Bookstore) for lunch, and continued the fellowship, along with yummy food. Several of us had caught part of the Oprah show the day before… one of many shows where she brings in Dr. Oz for more excellent healthy living advice. I don’t always learn something new from Dr. Oz, but it’s helpful to be reminded of the virtues of olive oil and red wine and broccoli and other fresh fruits and vegetables. And the destruction we do to our bodies with processed, refined foods. We all agreed that Lent would be a good time to re-double our efforts towards healthy living, as the Orthodox Fast omits meats and dairy. Not that all meats and dairy are unhealthy. But the spiritual framework of the Fast provides a great opportunity to eat low-fat, high anti-oxidant foods, in moderate amounts.

Arriving home mid afternoon, spirits lifted by the day, it took me all of about thirty minutes to begin to slip into a boredom that could lead to depression. I saw things I want/need to do in my house, and with my post-surgical foot in a cast I just can’t or shouldn’t tackle them. I have wonderful books to read and essays I’m writing that I could jump into. Instead, the voices in my head started to cry out: more! I want more!

So I served up a bowl of ice cream with chocolate syrup and propped myself up in front of the television. All my spiritual and creative powers went numb.

The next morning, I woke up craving a McDonald’s Sausage Biscuit! I haven’t had one in several years, but they used to be one of my food addictions. Okay. It’s Friday, and we don’t eat meat on Friday’s. So a Sausage Biscuit would be a blatant rebellion against the fast. And… each one (yes) has 27 grams of fat, 10 of which are saturated. The average person only needs 20 grams of fat in their total diet for the day, preferably little or none of it saturated. McDonald’s closes breakfast at 10:30, so I stayed in bed until after 10, reading and writing and willing myself not to get up and out the door in time. But the temptation has left me restless, so I dressed and headed out for some writing time at Starbucks, a much healthier choice, thankfully.

A friend came by later in the day and we talked about food cravings, weight issues, depression, and all those things many of us struggle with. What is the “hole” we are trying to fill up with all the wrong stuff? If you’ve ever been in therapy, you probably know what some of your own “holes” are. I’ve been working on mine for years. And I’m always encouraged to find someone else whose journey is similar and is willing to share their story.

A while back I mentioned that I had just ordered the book, Finding My Voice, by Diane Rehm. I just finished it this morning. A wonderful memoir. Diane was a talk show host for many years in Washington, DC. When she began having problems with her voice, she was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a condition that affects the muscles that control speech. I love Diane’s book for several reasons:

She was born into the (Syrian) Orthodox Church, and although she left it for the Episcopalian Church, her roots are still showing. (I took the opposite journey, growing up Protestant and converting to Orthodoxy.) She didn’t go to college, and fought an intense inferior complex most of her life. Even when she was a successful radio broadcaster, interviewing all sorts of VIPs, the negative voice inside her head continued to tell her she wasn’t good enough, she was a fake, etc.

I hear that same voice all the time. I also don’t have a college degree. When I was hired to produce a newsletter and edit papers for the graduate school of Engineering at a local university years ago, I got the job by burying my educational information at the end of my resume and talking up what I hoped were my strong points. There’s a sense in which I feel that I’ve been doing that my whole life.

So, I was surprised, but also comforted, to read these painful statements near the end of Diane’s book:

During the initial period of national distribution of ‘The Diane Rehm Show,” WAMU had undertaken satellite transmission of the program independently, without financial support from National Public Radio. But when NPR saw the total carrying strength of the show, they announced that they would begin to offer stations across the country a “Talk Track,”…. By January 1996, the NPR “Talk Track” was launched with great fanfare and much publicity…. Before long, stations that carried my program were inviting me to come and speak to their listeners…. My views were sought on political topics as well as on the media…. All the attention and excitement made me pause, however, wondering why I still felt like “a little Arab girl” who really didn’t belong.

And later she says she had “an almost irrational need to keep proving myself, even though people all over the country had welcomed the program into their homes, offices and cars.”

I said those very words to someone a few months ago, when we were discussing writing. I love the very act of writing, but I also very much want to be published. Writing isn’t just therapy for me. It’s a dialogue, which requires a reader. And yes, I feel I have something to prove.

So, why did this beautiful and successful woman feel so inadequate? She talks about her therapy sessions that helped her come to grips with being molested by a politician when she was young, and the impact her emotionally abusive mother had had on her. I know at this point some of you are saying, “here we go again… blame it on the parents.” But it’s not about blame. It’s about understanding. And letting go. And forgiving. And re-programming ourselves not to be ruled by inner voices that are so negative.

There’s also great stuff that Diane learned when she had to take time off work to get treatments for her voice. She found healing in silence. In walks outside in nature. In prayer and the healing services at her church.

It’s a gorgeous day today… I’m dying to go for a walk, which I can’t do with my cast. Maybe I’ll sit on the patio and soak up the sunshine for a while…. And keep working on the essays I’m writing for my memoir. I can hear the birds out the window of my office calling me now….

>Tornadoes on Super Tuesday & Giving Thanks on (Ash) Wednesday

>If I was Roman Catholic or Episcopalian, I might have ashes on my forehead today, like my friend, Nancy. We had coffee together at Starbucks this morning, like we do about twice a month. Nancy had attended Mass at St. Mary’s Episcopal downtown this morning. Usually Nancy and I would have talked politics the day after Super Tuesday. We often cancel out each other’s vote, but we’re still good friends. Today we never mentioned the election. We were too busy being thankful. And she was entering Lent. (For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins on March 10 this year. I’ll be posting more about that in a few weeks.)

Nancy lives a couple of miles from the mall in Southeast Memphis that was hit by one of the 9 tornadoes that touched down in the Memphis area yesterday. The tornadoes that killed 52 people in three states. The tornadoes that destroyed the students’ dorms at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, just 90 miles east of Memphis.

My husband and I sat on the bottom steps of our stairwell for about an hour late yesterday afternoon and early evening, with the door to our laundry room and pantry open in case we needed to move quickly into our designated “safe space.” We kept the TV news on during that hour and didn’t leave our perch until the sirens stopped and the current tornado warning subsided. That’s when my husband drove three blocks away to vote, arriving safely back home before the next round of tornado warnings began.

At 10:15 p.m. the danger was officially past. When I woke up today I was more interested in the news about the damage from the tornadoes than the results of the presidential primaries. My Goddaughter, Sarah, emailed to say that a 100-year-old tree in her front yard fell last night during the storm. It landed between her house and her neighbors, without damaging either house or anyone who lives in either house. She lives about five blocks from us. This happened a couple of hours after their annual House Blessing, done by our Pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn. She called it a miracle and gave thanks to God. In light of that, what difference does it make who won how many delegates in the primaries yesterday?

And yes, I did finally decide who to vote for, but I’m not going to discuss it on my blog. I actually changed hairdressers recently because I got tired of my previous person who could not seem to shut up about politics while he was doing my hair. So, today when I went to my new hairdresser for a haircut, it was so refreshing to talk about how merciful God had been to both of us yesterday. She actually drove home from work during one of the tornado warnings, unsure of whether that would be safer than staying at the salon. I left the salon with a spring in my step, even walking with a crutch and a foot in a cast. I walked three doors down from the salon to Papagallo’s for some retail therapy. Got a great tunic/dress on sale to celebrate being alive. (Okay, you guys are thinking that a haircut and a new dress are really really superficial in light of tornadoes and presidential elections, but my hairdresser and the owners of the dress shop need to make a living, too.)

Speaking of girls… during the storm last night I cancelled my plans to be at Davis Kidd Bookstore to meet Nikki Hardin, publisher of skirt! Magazine, who was signing her humorous book, PMS: Problems Men Started. Since Nikki has published two of my essays in skirt!, (here and here) I was really looking forward to meeting her. I called the bookstore today, hoping they had rescheduled her signing, but alas, they stayed the course, with a much smaller than hoped for crowd, during the tornado warnings.

One reason I wanted to meet Nikki was to thank her for participating in freedom of the press. Her magazine is probably much more feminist/liberal than my general leaning. For example, in November, 2007, one of the essays she published was called “Choosing Us: Our Abortion Was a Love Story,” by Alison Piepmeier. The author relates the decision she and her husband made to have an abortion, with all good feelings and no regrets. A decision I would never make, but the fact that Nikki chose to publish her essay leads to my point. The same publisher chose to publish two of my essays in which I refer to myself as an Orthodox Christian, and talk about the Orthodox Church, saints, prayers, and theology.

A friend who saw Piepmeier’s article in November asked me how I felt about being published alongside such a piece. My response was that I’d much rather be published in a magazine that allows such diverse opinions than in a publication tagged “Christian” or “conservative” or any other pre-conceived label. The possibility of making a difference in a publication that has a broad readership is much greater than in a magazine read by people who all thought alike.

People who know me, and the fact that I’m the mother of three adopted (grown) children, know that I am opposed to abortion. But not to the right of people to express their views. And so I’m thankful for Nikki Hardin, who published my articles alongside Piepmeier’s. She seems to be less driven by the market than, maybe even Hollywood. In yesterday’s Commercial Appeal, the same edition that advertised Hardin’s book signing event at Davis Kidd Bookstore ran a piece by Joseph Amodio (from Newsday) called “TV and films avoid abortion in story lines.” Amodio says that “even folks in ‘liberal Hollywood’ get edgy about using ‘the A word.’” He claims that Hollywood is afraid to make movies that show abortions, but skirt around the issue instead, often having characters talk about them, but decide not to have them. Interviewing several network executives, he says:

Some filmmakers speculate that there’s too much money invested in films and series now to risk alienating audiences.

I’m certainly not an expert in this area, and Amodio might be onto something about the marketing angle here. But I just want to toss a hopeful thought out for consideration: Maybe, just maybe, some of those folks making these decisions in Hollywood get a tinge of conscious as they consider promoting the murder of babies in the womb on the big screen. I’m sure that sounds extremely naive, but on a day when the sanctity of life in the tornado-infested South trumped news about the presidential primaries, I’m just full of hope. And the haircut and new dress both help.

>Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled: The End of Faith, Chapters 3 and 4


I’m continuing my posts about Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith. You can read my first two posts, about Chapter 1 here, and Chapter 2 here. I welcome comments… just click on “Comments” at the end of this post to publish a comment. If you don’t have a Google or blogger account, it only takes a few minutes to set one up. If you prefer to comment privately, please send me an email at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com.

Chapter 3: In the Shadow of God

In this chapter, Harris takes us on a harrowing ride through one of the most terrible times in the history of the Catholic Church: the Inquisition. Notice that I say, the Catholic Church. And while I have Catholic friends that I love, I just want to point out that the Orthodox Church wasn’t responsible for the Inquisition, and the reader must understand that I write from my vantage point as an Orthodox Christian.

The Inquisition happened after the Great Schism (1054) – the event that separated the Western (Catholic) Church from the East (Orthodox). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Orthodox Christians throughout history have never committed atrocities against their fellow man. But Harris isn’t addressing the Orthodox in this Chapter. He’s addressing the Roman Catholic Church. The Inquisition began in 1184, 130 years after the Catholic Church separated itself from the rest of Christendom. Since I am not a Roman Catholic, I am not in a position to judge the actions of their Church, or really to answer Harris’ accusations. But in the interest of a continuing dialogue about this book, I’ll select a few quotes and try to respond:

The question of how the church managed to transform Jesus’ principal message of loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek into a doctrine of murder and rapine seems to promise a harrowing mystery; but it is no mystery at all. Apart from the Bible’s heterogeneity and outright self-contradiction, allowing it to justify diverse and irreconcilable aims, the culprit is clearly the doctrine of faith itself. Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence—that unbelievers will go to hell, that Jews drink the blood of infants—he becomes capable of anything.

He’s referring in the last line to the practice known as “blood libel”… a belief that Jews require the blood of Christians for some of their rituals. I’m on unfamiliar ground here, but I completely disagree with his statement that Anti-Semitism is intrinsic to both Christianity and Islam…. (he deals with Islam in Chapter 4). And that Whatever the context, the hatred of Jews remains a product of faith, Christian, Muslim, as well as Jewish.

As well as Jewish? Jews hating Jews? I don’t get that, but again I disagree that hatred of Jews, or any people, is a “product of faith.” Hatred is a product of our sinful fallen nature. All of us, no matter what our religious preference, are capable and guilty of hatred at some point in our lives. Well, except maybe for some of the Saints who managed to escape this terrible vice.

Harris includes the Jews in his assault:

Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their “Freedom of belief” on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Again, I’m no expert on foreign affairs or the Middle East. But my opinion is that if what Harris predicts in the statement above happens, that it will be the result of sin, of fallen human nature (on all sides) and not the result of faith.

Harris takes us on a rabbit trail in the middle of Chapter 3, concerning the virginity of the Mother of God:

Mary’s virginity has always been suggestive of God’s attitude towards sex; it is intrinsically sinful, being the mechanism through which original sin was bequeathed to the generations after Adam. It would appear that Western civilization has endured two millennia of consecrated sexual neurosis simply because the authors of Matthew and Luke could not read Hebrew.

(He’s referring here to Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, in which they insist that Mary conceived as a virgin.) I’m confused as to why Harris interjected this section. In my ignorance I can’t see its relevance to his proposition. But since he brought it up, I will say that the Orthodox Church does not embrace this concept about sex at all. If Western civilization has “endured two millennia of consecrated sexual neurosis” it’s not the fault of the Church or of the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Again, it’s the result of our fallen humanity.
Harris deals with the Holocaust in this chapter, claiming that the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominately secular way, it was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity.

Again, I would point out that Harris’ definition of “medieval Christianity” does not include the Orthodox Church, but the Roman Catholic Church. Here’s a sample:

But the truly sinister complicity of the church came in its willingness to open its genealogical records to the Nazis and thereby enable them to trace the extent of a person’s Jewish ancestry. A historian of the Catholic Church, Guenther Lewy, has written:

“The cooperation of the [Catholic] Church in this matter continued right through the war years, when the price of being Jewish was no longer dismissal from a government job and loss of livelihood, but deportation and outright physical destruction.”

If the Catholic Church did aid in this terrible action, I am grieved, but again, that fact does not negate the goodness of God or the efficacy of faith.

At the end of this chapter, Harris’ drew some conclusions:

My purpose in this chapter has been to intimate, in as concise a manner as possible, some of the terrible consequences that have arisen, logically and inevitably, out of Christian faith…. The history of Christianity is principally a story of mankind’s misery and ignorance rather than of its requited love of God.

Perhaps the history of Christianity is both. But again, Harris begins with man, rather than with God. The Orthodox faith begins with God, and declares that the God who created man also redeems him.

Harris introduces the next chapter:

While Christianity has few living inquisitors today, Islam has many. In the next chapter we will see that in our opposition to the worldview of Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and fourteenth century hordes are pouring into our world. Unfortunately they are now armed with twenty-first-century weapons.

Harris might be right about this. Lord have mercy on us all.

Chapter 4: The Problem with Islam

Harris makes his views pretty clear here:

We are at war with Islam…. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith….

Harris spends 44 pages on Islam. On its fringe groups, its extremists and moderates and fundamentalists. It’s confusing, and yes it’s scary. He even pulls in Noah Chomsky, the author of a book called 9-11, in which he states that “the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.”

Harris says that what we need to counter Chomsky’s arguments is “the perfect weapon.” And that we need to use that weapon to create what he calls a “civil society.” Although he doesn’t get into the how of his plan in this chapter, he hints at the need for the U.S. to establish a “world government,” that might not be a democracy, but might work best as a “benign dictatorship.” I got chills as I read his words (and yes, I lost some more sleep last night) because they have a ring of anti-Christ to them. And no, I don’t know how he proposes this world government to come about, although he hints at it in the last paragraph of Chapter 4:

To achieve the necessary economic leverage, so that we stand a chance of waging this war of ideas by peaceful means, the development of alternative energy technologies should become the object of a new Manhattan Project. There are, needless to say, sufficient economic and environmental justifications for doing this, but there are political ones as well. It oil were to become worthless, the dysfunction of the most prominent Muslim societies would suddenly grow as conspicuous as the sun. Muslims might then come to see the wisdom of moderating their thinking on a wide variety of subjects. Otherwise, we will be obliged to protect our interests in the world with force—continually. In this case, it seems all but certain that our newspapers will begin to read more and more like the book of Revelation.

Harris’ last statement might not be too far from the mark. God revealed those truths about the end times to the Holy Apostle John in the cave on the island of Patmos, Greece, where St. John wrote the Book of the Apocalypse, of Revelation. I saw the place where he heard God’s voice in that cave when I visited Patmos this past October, and my faith was enlarged by that pilgrimage.

And I’m finding comfort at this moment in a very different but interesting place. One day this week I was in my car and turned on the Sean Hannity radio show. A conservative caller to the show was panicky about the possibility of a liberal ending up in the White House. Now I don’t agree with everything Hannity, or any political analysis or politician, for that matter, has to say. I haven’t decided who to vote for two days from now. But I loved his response to this caller. It’s his trademark: “Let not your heart be troubled.” Life in these United States will continue as people struggle to find the truth in all areas of life.

It reminded me of something a dear friend said to me during a visit on Friday. The friend said, “I’m happy. I’ve decided to be happy.” We talked about what that meant. It’s not a passive resignation to things going on in the world. It’s not a decision to bury our heads in the sand and not work for things that we care about. But it’s also not a decision to allow our circumstances, and those in the world at large, to determine our state of mind, heart and soul. This friend is an Orthodox Christian. He understands that God’s Kingdom is not of this world.

As I continue to read Harris’ book and discuss it with another friend, the one who asked me read it, the one who has embraced it with so much enthusiasm, I’ll read it with faith in the God who said those favorite words of Hannity’s: “Let not your heart be troubled.”

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