Writing on Wednesday: Filling the Tank

S0386I’ve been poring over my novel, doing a fourth revision this week. So this morning I took a break to fill the tank. First I read the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest, which always has some great stuff. It was fun to read my friend Dinty Moore’s “inkwell” column, “Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,” which was excerpted from Dinty’s book by the same name. I 51roGv2U+vL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_don’t write humor and I’m not currently writing memoir, but this essay was just what I needed this morning. Oh, and there’s a great interview with Robert Dugoni that you can read online, here.

And then a writing buddy just sent me a link to this excellent article in The New Yorker by John McPhee, “Omission.” It’s about choosing what to leave out of a manuscript. The readers at the literary agent’s office who are giving me feedback on my novel recently encouraged me to back off over-telling in some places, which “takes away from the discovery for the reader.” I’m currently going through the entire novel again, looking for those sections that need more white space. McPhee’s words help:

51KapzseH9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.

Another writing buddy just encouraged me to buy The John McPhee Reader and soak up his brilliant essays. Just ordered it, so more fuel is on the way! I think I can get back to work now. Have a great Wednesday!

Mental Health Monday: God Weeps

000b262e-642Although many people were more interested in Pope Francis’ words concerning immigration, homelessness and climate change in his first visit to the U.S., it was his meeting with victims of sexual abuse by church leaders that caused me to sit up and listen.

The Pope met with five survivors of abuse, assuring them that their abusers would be held accountable. And then he said this, publicly:

God weeps…. It continues to overwhelm me with shame that the people who were charged with taking care of these tender ones violated their trust and caused them tremendous pain.

Although some activist groups and individual politicians say his words were just for a public display—and yes, action is needed to bring the perpetrators to justice—I believe they are words of healing. Probably because I’m one of the victims, although my abusers weren’t clergy in the Catholic Church.

Two of the three men who molested me as a child and young adult asked my forgiveness. The third—my grandfather—died before I was old enough to confront him about what he did to me. His sin is the hardest for me to forgive. I’ve thought a lot about why that is, and I think listening to the Pope this weekend made it clearer to me. It’s easier to forgive when someone says they are sorry. Even if that someone isn’t the person who hurt you.

Pope Francis also said that he personally took on the evil actions of the clergy who had molested so many, and he personally asked for forgiveness on their behalf. How does that work?

About fifteen years ago, I met with an Orthodox priest and a friend who needed his counsel. She had been hurt by another priest and was struggling to get over it. The priest we were talking with did an amazing thing. He got down on his hands and knees—he prostrated himself before her—and said, “On behalf of any and all clergy who have ever hurt you, please forgive me.”

Please forgive me. Powerful words.
But what if they never come? It’s so easy to stay mad at someone who never says, “sorry.” But who are we hurting by carrying around pain and anger all our lives?

Grands and MomFor the past few years I’ve been keeping a photograph on my bureau, one that used to be stored away in a box. It’s a picture of my mother with her father and mother—my grandparents. It was taken around 1924—when my mother was four years old, the same age I was when my grandfather molested me. I have often wondered if he didn’t also hurt her—her alcoholic and abusive behavior were telltale signs—but I never asked her. I adored my grandmother, Emma Sue, for whom I was named. And for a while I just wanted the picture because of her. But recently I’ve found myself stopping in front of it, looking my grandfather in the eyes and saying, “I forgive you.” I don’t always feel the forgiveness, emotionally, but I believe the words in my heart, and just saying them helps. And now after the Pope’s words this weekend, I have a mental image that also helps. When I feel the pain and the anger starting to flare up again, I will think, “God weeps.”

Faith on Friday: The Apostle of Love

Saint John, detail

Saint John, detail

One month ago I did a post about the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. I was whining a bit about the fasting and having to go to church on Saturday. Today, four weeks later, I’m looking at another Saturday liturgy tomorrow morning, and this one is preceded by Vespers tonight. So, that’s Friday night and Saturday morning of my weekend, in addition to Sunday morning. Lots more church, right? But this time I’m not feeling whiny. I’m not sure why, but I think some of it has to do with the ascetical struggle I’ve been having for the past three weeks. I’ve been eating under 1000 calories most days, and I’ve lost six pounds. This endeavor and small bit of success is helping me with struggles in other areas, like laziness and depression. I’m actually looking forward to this weekend’s celebrations.

I say “celebrations” because it’s our patronal feast. Saint John the Evangelist and Theologian is our patron saint, and September 26 is one of two days in the calendar year where he is commemorated. (The other one is May 8.) But it’s Saint John’s repose (death) that we commemorate this weekend.

Saint John was the only apostle to die a natural death. He lived to be around 105 years old. I think living that far into old age is a type of martyrdom itself, as we often suffer so many illnesses and pain in our bodies after a certain age. What are some of the things we honor Saint John for?

Putting the final lights on the icon of Saint John at an icon workshop in Pennsylvania

Putting the final lights on the icon of Saint John at an icon workshop in Pennsylvania

He was the apostle to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his Mother when he was dying on the cross, sometimes called, “the apostle whom Jesus loved.” Some people call him the apostle of love, for he lived and preached the simple message, “Little children, love one another.” And he wrote about God’s love throughout the scriptures he left us his Gospel and letters. He lived mostly in Ephesus, and his main ministry was to the seven Churches of Asia Minor—in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Theatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodician. And later, after the Emperor Domitian tried to kill him by putting him in boiling oil (which didn’t work) he sent him to the island of Patmos, where he thought he could do no more to further the Christian faith. Domitian couldn’t have been more wrong, as Patmos is the place where Saint John wrote his Revelation which is the final book of the Bible. My husband and I were blessed to visit Patmos a few years ago and see the place where Saint John wrote his final words.

The cave on Patmos where Saint John wrote the book of Revelation

The cave on Patmos where Saint John wrote the book of Revelation. (Photo taken October 2007)

And as the patron saint of our parish, he prays for us. Kind of like a guardian angel, only he’s a saint, a glorified human being.

So yes, I’m looking forward to Vespers tonight, where we will sing and chant verses to Saint John and hear much of his legacy read in the form of Holy Scriptures. And then the Divine Liturgy (feast) tomorrow morning, followed by a potluck meal and a time of fellowship with others who love Saint John. (I’ve already got cinnamon rolls and Bloody Mary mixings ready to take for the potluck.)


O Apostle John, speaker of deity,

The beloved of Christ our God,

Hasten to deliver your people,

Powerless in speech,

For He on Whose bosom you lean

Accepts you as an intercessor,

Beseech Him therefore

To disperse the darkness of ignorance

And pray for peace

And great mercy to be shown upon us.

Writing on Wednesday: Literary Candy Store

dont-give-upYesterday was a banner day in some ways. But also a struggle. In my anxiety over my work I let my guard down and ate way over my calorie budget. This morning the scales recorded a one pound gain. So today I’m struggling to keep going with this setback. And to respond to the news I got yesterday from BOTH the literary agent who just finished reading the third revision of my novel, Cherry Bomb, AND the press editor who is interested in publishing my anthology.

I was anxious to hear back from both of them, and ironically I received their emails about an hour apart. It had been seven weeks since I sent the novel revisions to the agent. Her email was encouraging—“ As before, we found your story interesting and commercial. Your writing is well rounded and the dialogue flows well. Congratulations on this edit! Your book has improved.”—but then came the part about how it still needs more work. Nothing as major as before, thankfully, but nonetheless, it’s apparently not ready to be shopped out. So it’s back to work on the novel again.

7ab4e4a47461f06a7db3e8c356d0ffb1Meanwhile the editor of the press sent my revised anthology proposal out to readers and shot me back some questions, so I’m busy at work on that project at the same time. The work is so different than revising a novel, and I welcome the change of pace. I love research, so I’m having fun searching for an essay by one of the well-known authors who has agreed to contribute to the anthology. She’s busy traveling right now and doesn’t have time so she said, “Choose something.” I’m like a kid in a candy store. Only these treats have no calories. Yum.

Mental Health Monday: Know Your Numbers?

My husband, Dr. William Cushman, heads up clinical trials usually involving blood pressure through the VA Medical Center locally and the National Institutes of Health nationally. Since the results of the recent SPRINT study show that we should all have a systolic (top number) blood pressure of 120 or lower, I hope that lots of folks are headed to their physicians to get checked out and get on an appropriate blood-pressure-lowering regimen. Here’s a video interview with my husband and his friend, Dr. Henry Black, that tells more about the study and results.

Omron BP cuffI’ve never had high blood pressure, and I’ve recently begun a weight-loss program, but I still decided to begin monitoring my pressure. We have an Omron blood pressure monitor at home, which makes it easy to check my numbers frequently.

And there’s a free Omron Wellness app that syncs the results to your iPhone so you can easily keep up with those numbers. You can also send them to your physician if you need to. Since my BP on Saturday was 105/74, and it’s often Omron app readingquite a bit higher in the doctor’s office, I’ll be sharing my numbers the next time I go in for a check up. There are a couple of reasons that BP levels are often higher in the doctor’s office. One is that they are supposed to let you sit and relax for five minutes before taking your pressure. Of course they never do this. And they are supposed to have you sit in a chair with your back supported, not sitting on an exam table. And they’re supposed to tell you not to cross your legs. All of these things can affect the accuracy of the test, so I sometimes request these procedures be followed. But when I recently asked a nurse to retake my pressure after I rested for five minutes, she said, “I’ll do it, but it will be higher then.” When I asked why she thought that she said, “because you’re obviously stressed out about it and you’ll just get more anxious waiting five minutes.” I wonder why people with attitudes like that even go into the wellness industry.

So why am I writing about blood pressure for Mental Health Monday? Because keeping our systolic pressure at 120 or lower can cut deaths by 25%. And doing something about our physical well being affects our emotional and mental health. I feel better already! (And I only lost a half pound this past week, but that’s a total of 5 ½ pounds in three weeks. Slow but steady….)

Faith on Friday: This is the Day…

This-is-the-Day_Roger-copy3-1024x775About seventeen years ago, my husband and I began a practice we learned from my parents. My dad died in 1998, but during his final weeks and days I watched as he and Mom started their day with a greeting and response. One would say, “This is the day the Lord has made,” and the other would respond, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And then an interesting thing happened. After Dad died, Mom continued the practice. She would wake up and look at a photograph of my dad and say, “This is the day the Lord has made.” And after a brief pause, she would say Dad’s part, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Because she believed he was still with her. And I do, too.

I woke up this morning thinking about that, when my husband gave me our greeting and I replied and then he kissed me good morning. I don’t always say my morning prayers. And I rarely take time during the day to read the Scriptures. Sometimes I might read something spiritual, but usually I’m reading fiction or memoir or poetry. All that to say that it’s pretty easy to go through an entire day without thinking about God. Without including Him in my life. Without an awareness of His presence. Except that I’m reminded of Him first thing when I hear that greeting from my husband. What a gift.

Writing on Wednesday: MidSouth Book Festival

MSFF posterThe second annual MidSouth Book Festival took place September 9-13 at Playhouse on the Square and Circuit Playhouse in midtown Memphis. There were also tents for vendors in the street, as well as food trucks and outdoor entertainment. I was able to get to four events, so here’s a quick review.

Alexis Grace rocks the Well Read Reception

Alexis Grace rocks the Well Read Reception

Friday Night’s “Well Read Reception” for presenters and festival-goers was sold out, with music by Memphis’s own Alexis Grace (and a terrific keyboard player), an open bar, and barbeque ribs, lamb sliders, and lobster mac and cheese. My husband and I especially enjoyed meeting Dennis Bryon of the Bee Gees, a delightfully personable, humble man.

Dennis Bryon, Neil White, & Janis F. Kearney

Dennis Bryon, Neil White, & Janis F. Kearney

Saturday morning I chose “Bill Clinton and the Bee Gees: Memoirs from the Spotlight,” moderated by Neil White, with Dennis Bryon and (Clinton diarist) Janis F. Kearney. What a great peek behind the scenes into these artists’ lives in the exciting  realms of politics and pop culture. I bought two of Kearney’s books and I’m already enjoying them. (And I bought Bryon’s book, You Should Be Dancing: My Life With the Bee Gees, as a birthday gift for my husband, but don’t tell him.)


Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly

Next up for me was “Challenging the Mythology of the Lady Writer,” with Beth Ann Fennelly, Sonja Livingston, and Kim McLarin. I’ve been friends with Beth Ann and Sonja for a while, and it was great to meet Kim, a former Memphian, writer for the New York Times, and now writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston. I can’t wait to read her book, Jump at the Sun. (I’ve already read most of Beth Ann and Sonja’s books!) This panel was rich with take-home wisdom for writers. A few snippets:

Women in the South inhabit their voices like women in Southern France inhabit their bodies.—Sonja Livingston


Sonja Livingston

When men like Franzen write about family issues, it’s called great literature; when women write about those same issues it’s called “women’s lit.”—Kim McLarin


Kim McLarin

Marketing and book covers were discussed, and Beth Ann shared about their publisher wanting to put her husband’s name first on the cover of The Tilted World, a novel they wrote together, because his novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, was a New York Times bestseller. Although Beth Ann actually wrote more of the novel than Tom (and her last name comes first alphabetically) they agreed to the publisher’s choice. The cover of Kim’s hardback edition of Jump at the Sun features a white woman, although Kim and her characters are black. Again, a marketing move, since more book clubs would buy it with a white woman on the cover. Difficult decisions for these artists to make in order to get their books into the hands of more readers.

The final panel I attended on Saturday was “Family Ties: Writing About Loved Ones,” featuring Harrison Scott Key, Corey Mesler, and Dana Sachs, moderated by Ashley Bonds. Harrison is always entertaining, and Corey (owner of Burke’s Books, just down the street from the festival) is always riveting. I had not met Dana, but she did not disappoint.

Susan with Dennis Byron, Bee Gees drummer

Susan with Dennis Byron, Bee Gees drummer

So I give big kudos to all the presenters. My only complaint about the festival was the low attendance at the panels on Saturday. I didn’t take a head count, but my guess is that there were between twenty five and forty people at the panels I attended. And while the Friday night reception was sold out and well done, I pictured a much larger group. Just a few weeks ago 3,750 people attended the inaugural Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson. And the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville is always packed. I don’t know if Memphis just doesn’t consider itself a literary town or what, but I was disappointed in the turnout.



Thanks to the organizers and volunteers for their hard work. I had a terrific weekend and look forward to next year!

Mental Health Monday: Wiggle Room

baggy jeansYou know how some people buy jeans a size too large in order to have some wiggle room? Well, that’s part of the reasoning behind my 1,000-calorie diet. The first week I set the budget at 1,200 calories, but then I decided (1) I wanted to lose the weight more quickly and (2) I needed a little wiggle room. This past weekend I was happy to have those “bigger jeans.”


Weight_Loss_Plateau_Thinner_SparkleWe had out of town company. We went to an awesome party Friday night (open bar, BBQ ribs, lobster mac and cheese, etc.). I ate 3 meals on Saturday. (I usually eat 1-2 actual meals a day.) And yet I still managed to (1) work out on the elliptical every day and (2) stay under 1,200 calories. How much weight did I lose? ZERO. How much did I gain? ZERO. So after two weeks I’m holding steady at 5 pounds lost, although most of it was lost in the first 10 days. I guess I’ve hit a plateau, but I don’t plan to stay here very long. I’m renaming today: MOVE FORWARD MONDAY!


That’s all. Check back in on Wednesday for a post about the MidSouth Book Festival in Memphis this past weekend. Terrific speakers, panels and workshops.

Faith on Friday: The Three Graces of Mindfulness

Three Graces by Sandro Botticelli

Three Graces by Sandro Botticelli

Today I’m borrowing a quote from Richard Rohr’s daily meditation from yesterday, “Mindfulness.” (Mindfulness was my “One Word” for 2014.)

Pema Chödrön teaches three graces of mindfulness practice: precision, gentleness, and letting go. Once we can honestly acknowledge whatever is going on in the moment with clarity and acceptance, we can let our unmet expectations go. This allows us to live more freely and vibrantly, fully awake to Presence. Knitter writes: “if we can truly be mind-ful of what is going on in us or around us–that’s how we can find or feel ‘the Spirit’ in it. Then our response to the situation will be originating from the Spirit rather than from our knee-jerk feelings of fear or anger or envy. And whether the response is to endure bravely or to act creatively, it will be done with understanding and compassion–which means it will be life-giving or life-creating.”—Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (Oneworld Publications: 2009), 162.

Fear, anger, and envy. Three knee-jerk feelings I often experience in reaction to people or events in my life. I’m hoping that practicing the three graces of mindfulness—precision, gentleness and letting go—will help me respond to life’s circumstances and to those around me with understanding and compassion. Have a great weekend.

Walking on Wednesday: You Go, Girl!

(If you’re here for my regular “Writing on Wednesday” post, please come back next week!)

2322648Since I began counting calories on August 31, I’ve stepped up my workouts on the elliptical machine. As the weather gets cooler, I’m looking forward to walking in my beautiful neighborhood and especially down by the river. Only problem with all of this is that my foot (the one I broke—the one that still has screws in it) hurts with very much impact, and even with no impact on the elliptical if I go for 40 minutes. And every pair of (closed-toe) shoes I’ve ever tried on hurts my foot. Until now.
womens-skechers-go-flex-walking-shoe-black-lime-465755_450_45Enter the Skechers Go Flex Walking Shoe, which arrived yesterday. They’re not much to look at (although I do like the lime green accents) but they are unbelievably comfortable. It’s like walking on a memory foam mattress on top of a yoga mat. And they’re made to wear without socks. (I haven’t worn socks in years. Hate them.) I can’t wait to try them out on the elliptical this afternoon.

Oh, and if you’re keeping up with my progress, I’ve lost 4 ½ pounds in 9 days. Now that really puts a spring in my step! The first week I was on 1200 calories/day. This week I decided to try 1000/day. See you on Friday.

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