Chalk by Grace Cushman (age 9)

 

Grace writing, May 2018

Grace writing, May 2018

There’s another writer in the Cushman family. Our son Jason, has always been a writer. Check out his blog, Harsh Reality. This morning he posted this short story by his nine-year-old daughter Grace on his blog. I asked his permission to share it here because I think it’s so wonderful. I’m so proud of all four of our granddaughters, ages 3, 6, 8, and 9, but today I’m featuring Grace. The writer.

I interviewed Grace on Facetime briefly last night to ask about her inspiration for the story. Turns out she does know a girl named Capriana (cool name, huh?) but her story is nothing like this one. I asked if she knew someone who had recently lost a parent and might be dealing with the kinds of emotions that are so evident in this story, and she didn’t. This just came from her imagination, and from a deep, caring, gifted soul. Please read and enjoy.

1-sidewalk-chalk-i-tom-mc-nemar

Chalk

by Grace Cushman

One breezy spring morning, a girl named Capriana woke up in her cotton bed. She could barely wake up for school. She hauled herself to her dresser and got dressed. Her mom forced her to wear her least favorite orange pants. Capriana HATED the color orange. She only liked the color red because red was the color emotion of anger. She stomped down the stairs with a handful of books that she’s already read twice, a white shirt, and her least favorite orange pants.

“Hey orange is a good color for you! You don’t always have to grumpy when you don’t get your way you know.” said Capriana’s mom as Capriana stomped to the kitchen.

Capriana had frizzy brown hair and eyes that were the color of an emerald. Capriana ignored her mother and sat down to eat breakfast. “YUCK! Mommy you know how much I hate oatmeal!” complained Capriana.

“Oh just eat it!” said Capriana’s mom as she pushed the lavender bowl.

Capriana did not like the color lavender either. To her it meant friendship. Capriana did not have any friends in her second grade classroom. Capriana picked up the silver spoon and took a big bite. “HOT!” yelled Capriana as she dropped her spoon that made a cling sound. Capriana’s mom sighed and knelt down to grab the spoon. Capriana came back in the kitchen hauling a bag full of books. “Come on mommy I’m gonna be late for school!”

”Ok! Coming!”  

When Capriana’s mom dropped off Capriana and said goodbye, Capriana stomped all the way to her classroom full of LITTLE SECOND GRADERS! When Capriana got to her classroom everyone stopped talking and looked at her. Then they all scooted one foot away from her desk. Capriana didn’t care. You get used to something when it’s happened to you for a year. But then Capriana saw a boy smiling at her. It was the new kid that had joined the classroom. Then a boy scooted to him and whispered something in his ear. Capriana waited for him to join the other. But suddenly he had a face that said, “So what?”

After math, which was the first subject of the day, Capriana got to know the boy more. She already knew he was really good at math. And she didn’t care that he was perfect all the time. Even his name was perfect for him! George. All she cared about was having a friend. A real friend. But deep down inside her she still felt like something bad was about to happen. Something terrible. During writing George and Capriana were sitting in the corner together having their clipboards clutched to their chests. “Hahaha!”

“SHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” shushed their teacher, Ms. Banana.

“HAHAHAHAHAHA! That’s so… HAHAHA! So funny! HAHAHAHAHA!” laughed George, tears in his eyes.

“SHUSH YOUR LITTLE MOUTHS!” hissed Ms. Banana as she closed shut a filling cabin.

Capriana and George started working quietly with their pencils. They both knew they had to start working faster for their writing celebration that was tomorrow. But suddenly, a boy dropped a book on George’s head! “ Owwww” said George while he rubbed his head. The book had dropped so quickly that it startled George and his hand struck out. And that had been a mistake. His perfectly sharpened pencil had ripped a hole in Capriana’s published writing. Gasp flooded the room with all eyes on George and Capriana. Capriana’s eyes felt hot. And so did her cheeks. George didn’t know what was coming for him. “Capriana I’m so sor-”

“GEORGE, YOU MADE A HOLE IN MY PAPER!” cried Capriana, bursting into tears.

George’s heart sank faster than the Titanic. “Capriana I said I’m sor-”

“I DON’T CARE IF YOU’RE SORRY, GEORGE! I WAS ABOUT TO FINISH MY WRITING!”

“Bu-bu-but”

“GEORGE I….I…HATE YOU!” yelled Capriana. George stood quiet with tears rolling down his cheeks. Capriana was so angry that she ripped all of his perfect handwriting to pieces.

When it was the next day Capriana and George missed out on their writing celebration. So instead of drinking strawberry lemonade and reading each other’s writing they just read in the corner of their classroom. Which was not a problem to Capriana because she loved to read a lot. So at recess she read by herself under a tree. But at a distance she could hear a bunch of girls singing “George and Capriana sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Capriana wanted to wipe the smiles off their faces. But instead she kept reading. Reading was what kept her anger down. But at art class she saw the same girls talking about her and George in the corner. That’s when she got so mad that when she heard them she actually punched one of the girls in the face.

“I’m so sorry about Capriana’s behavior. I’ll be sure to talk to her when we get home.” said Capriana’s mom. 

“Yes. Capriana just has to control her anger.” said Capriana’s principal.

“I don’t know why she is so angry all the time!” said Capriana’s mom.

“Can you tell me when she started acting like this?” asked the principal.

“Well she started ever since her father died.”

“Hmmmm I see. Go on.”

“She was so sad that she ran away from home and returned,” said Capriana’s mom.

“Well she’s lucky it only caused a nose bleed and a few tears. And since this is her 1st warning, she will only get expelled for three days,” said Capriana’s principal. Capriana’s mom nodded and walked out the door

When Capriana got home she ran up the stairs and slammed the door shut behind her. She grabbed a book from her shelf and started reading in her head on her bed. Tears rolled down her hot red cheeks. Suddenly the door opened. Capriana stopped reading at the word “chalk.” She looked up. It was her mom. Her mom gingerly creaked open the door. “Hey sweetie can we talk?” asked Capriana’s mom. Capriana ignored her and kept reading. Capriana’s mom frowned. She took the book from Capriana and put it on the floor. “I’ve decided for your punishment you will have no tv, no computer, and no reading for a week.”

“WHAT!?”

Capriana sat on her porch step with the sun burning her neck. Capriana had a small neighborhood. It was the shape of a circle. Suddenly Capriana saw something brown in the middle of their neighborhood under the slide in their park. She crossed the street and saw that it was a box. Capriana bent down and took the box out. She opened it and inside were different colored pieces of chalk. She took one piece out. Capriana didn’t think about drawing to calm her anger down. She used them on her hand and drew a circle. Then a heart then a square then a flower. Soon she was drawing monkeys and squirrels like the ones she had seen in her trees. And she even drew herself. Soon she had a city of colors and shapes. But then suddenly, something fell on Capriana’s head. She touched her head; it was wet. Then more raindrops fell from the sky! And soon her masterpiece was now just a flood of colors. Capriana’s face felt hot again. She got so mad that she broke every single piece of chalk in the box. Then Capriana started crying. But not because she was upset but because she knows how it feels for something that you’ve worked hard on go to waste.

When it was tomorrow Capriana walked into her classroom. George and everyone else scooted a foot to the left. Capriana wanted to cry but she walked to George. “George I’m sorry for what happened. Will you forgive me?” asked Capriana. George didn’t answer. Capriana sighed. Then she told him what had happened the other day. George then finally forgave her and they became friends again.

Anna (8) and Grace (9) when they visited us in October. Sister love.

Anna (8) and Grace (9) when they visited us in October. Sister love.

Grace on a frozen lake near her house outside Denver

Grace on a frozen lake near her house outside Denver

Grace, Anna, and SuSu visit one of the two Little Free Libraries in our neighborhood.

Grace, Anna, and SuSu visit one of the two Little Free Libraries in our neighborhood.

Alz Authors

I’m honored to be a part of a wonderful tribe of over 150 authors who write about their experiences with Alzheimer’s, and to be featured on their site today:

Meet Susan Cushman, author of Tangles and Plaques

Thanks for reading!

Alz Authors artwork for T&P Cushman

Contentment #OneWord365

OneWord365For the past few years, I’ve been choosing a word every December to focus on for the coming year. I register the word with the folks at One Word 365, which is where I got the idea in the first place. Once you do this, you can find others in your “tribe” who have chosen the same word, and contact them if you are interested.

Find-Contentment-seekingcontentment.com_For 2019, I have chosen the word CONTENTMENT. Before I tell you more about why I chose that word, let me tell you about a message I received today from a woman in another state who chose the same word. She looked me up in our One Word “tribe” and sent me a message. Turns out she is caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. Small world. Or large epidemic (Alzheimer’s), depending upon how you look at it. We’ve enjoyed chatting online about our shared and different experiences, and although my journey/struggles with my mother and her Alzheimer’s ended with her death in May of 2016, this woman is in the throes of it right now. She is blessed to have help from family, including a future daughter-in-law who is a nurse.

So why did I choose “contentment” as my One Word for 2019? Because I struggle so much with various elements of its opposite— jealousy, greed, gluttony, resentment, restlessness. My father confessor has encouraged me to practice thankfulness as an antidote to jealousy, and that helps. Looking at my life from the outside (as all of us view one another’s lives) I’m sure most people think I have a pretty charmed life and should find it easy to be content. And I do! I have financial security, a good marriage of 48+ years, fairly good health (having survived cancer and a life-threatening car wreck), three healthy children who have good jobs, four healthy granddaughters, several very close friends, and the opportunity during this later season of my life (I’ll be 68 in March) to pursue my dreams—writing and publishing books. During a 17-month period in 2017 and 2018, I actually had four books published, which is pretty amazing. I went on close to 60 events in 7 states speaking and signing books during those two years, and really had the time of my life. So why do I struggle with contentment?

 4 books 2

 

Psychologically speaking, I’ve been looking for the love I didn’t get as a child (from my grandfather, who molested me, and my mother, who was verbally abusive to me) my whole life. And no matter what I have, it never feels like enough. In some ways I’ve been like an orphan who isn’t sure where her next meal is coming from, so she hoards bit and pieces of food for the future. Metaphorically. I’ve always wanted more. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a cheerleader more than anything life had to offer. When I didn’t get it, I went after everything else. But all the other honors and activities (Secretary of the Student Body, acting in school plays and being a Theater Guild officer, being business manager of the school newsletter, eventually being a “Favorite,” “Best School Booster,” and a member of the Hall of Fame did not make me content. I wanted to be a cheerleader.

At Ole Miss I pledged what I considered to be the top sorority—turning down bids from other sororities—and was elected president of our pledge class. I was dating, and soon engaged to, the president of the senior class. And yet I never FELT like I was popular, successful, or loved. What was lacking? What was it I wanted and didn’t have? This was almost 50 years ago, and yet I can remember it like it was yesterday: I wanted to be skinny and beautiful. I wanted to look like the beauty queens. I was chubby and had eating disorders and was never content with myself.

Those issues followed me into early adulthood and middle age.

And then there’s my “career.” For the first seven years of my marriage, I worked mainly in administrative positions in various medical offices and businesses. I only finished two years of college, not wanting to borrow money to continue school while my husband was in medical school and residency. Once he started making money, I chose to work part time on and off while raising our three children, but I was mostly a stay-at-home mom. So, when our third child left for college, I decided it was time for my “career.” I got cancer right away, which derailed things for a little while. But then I was able to pursue my dreams. I started with painting—studying iconography and eventually leading workshops and teaching in my home studio. In 2006 I started writing seriously, not knowing it would be 11 years until my first book would be published. During those years, I published over a dozen essays in various journals and magazines, but I wasn’t content. I believed that publishing a book would bring contentment.

Friends and fellow writers tell me I should be proud of what I’ve accomplished in my late life career, and I am. Proud. But not always content, which is another thing altogether. I spent months several times during those years trying to get a literary agent, so that my books would have a chance to be published by one of the large houses and be read by thousands. When those plans never worked out, I ended up publishing with four different independent presses who don’t require agent representation—two academic and two small presses. And while my experiences with some of those presses have been wonderful, I’m still in the “small pond.”

fc7fbc8db64bcda844fb8ee3e61b65e6So I tried again last year to get an agent for my short story collection, and also my personal essay collection, but after several months, I lost patience and sent the manuscripts to more indie presses. Of course I’ll be happy to hear that either or both books get published, but I’ll still be in the small pond. I’m asking God to help me be thankful and CONTENT in that pond. And I’m trying to apply Colossians 3:23 to my work ethic:

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

At 67 I’m seeing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is these areas. And I’m hoping that by focusing on CONTENTMENT in 2019, I’ll find that elusive peace I’ve been craving my whole life. As I was writing this post, I found a post on my new One Word 365 friend’s Facebook page that said, “Which Bible verse will guide you in 2019?” I began to look for verses about contentment (here’s a nice list of 20) and found a couple that resonated strongly. I’ll close with my favorite:

“That each of them may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”—Ecclesiastes 3:13

What would be your ONE WORD for 2019? Whether or not you chose one “officially,” I hope I’ve inspired you to at least consider a goal that will bring healing and encouragement to you in the New Year.

End of Year Book List for 2018

imageSo, last year I posted my book list, showing that I had read 44 books in 2017. Not sure what this says about me (I’m a slacker?) but in 2018 I only read 38 books—just over one book every two weeks. In comparing the two years, I can’t figure out how I read 18 fewer books this year than the previous, since in 2017 I published 3 books and traveled to over 40 events in 7 states for those books, whereas in 2018 I published 1 book and only traveled to about 25 events in 5 states. Where did my reading time go in 2018? A close examination of my life indicates that I probably spent those remaining reading hours watching television. Yes. I love to watch television. This might be unusual for a writer, but I grew up watching TV (starting in the mid 1950s when we got our first set) and didn’t become a reader until I was in my 50s! I wanted to be an actor before I wanted to be a writer, which explains a bit about my love for the screen.

In my (self) defense, I will say that in 2018 I WROTE another book—my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY—so there’s that. (Pats self on the back.) And I organized my personal essay collection, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED, into sections and wrote the introduction. And I spent a good deal of time querying literary agents and independent presses for both of these books. (Pats self on the back. Again.)

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to notice the types of books I read each of these years:

2017: 23 fiction (all novels); 20 nonfiction (9 memoirs, 1 collection of micro-memoirs, 2 spiritual/religious, 2 psychology/self-help, 5 inspiration/essays, 1 art/history); and 1 poetry collection. 18 of those 44 books were by authors I know personally.

2018: 19 fiction (16 novels, 2 short story collections, 1 book of 4 novellas); 15 nonfiction (5 memoirs, 4 spiritual/religious/inspirational books, 3 essay collections, 1 oral biography, 2 psychology/self help);4 poetry collections. 24 of the 28 books I read in 2018 were by authors I know personally.

So, here’s my list of books read in 2018, actually in the order in which I read them. I’m taking a risk of hurting my friends’ feelings, since I know 23 of these authors, but I’m going to put an asterisk by my favorites. Please keep in mind how very subjective this is—certain topics and stories resonate with people who have shared experiences and interests—and not always an indication of how excellent the prose is, although in some cases that’s the reason for the asterisk. I will also add that I read the first 100 pages or so of THE FRIEND, winner of the National Book Award, but lost interest. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a dog person? As a writer, I wanted to see what it was about the book that won it such a prestigious award. Just didn’t get it. See how subjective this is? (NOTE: THE FRIEND did make the New York Time’s list of 100 Notable Books of 2018. So did 2 books I read and liked very much, IN PIECES by Sally Field and EDUCATED by Tara Westover.
What’s up next for me in 2019? Michelle Obama’s BECOMING, Patti Reagan Davis’s memoir about her father’s journey with Alzheimer’s, THE LONG GOODBYE, and THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON, edited b y Christine Flanagan, are on top of my stack (which is huge!) . . . but I’ll be going to the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January again, where I’ll visit with over 50 fellow authors and lots of prolific readers, so no telling how many books I’ll come home with!

Mourning DoveHappy reading in 2019! Please leave a comment here or on Facebook and tell me YOUR favorites books read in 2018! HAPPY NEW YEAR

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Hunger by Roxane Gay

*Gradle Bird by J.C. Sasser (my review is here)

Spells & Oregano by Patricia V. Davis

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley (my review is here)

*Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton (my review is here)

My Exaggerated LifeThe Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life by Nicole Roccas (my post about this book is here)

*My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy as told to Katherine Clark (my Q & A with author Katherine Clark is here)

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Mississippi by Ann Fisher-Wirth (poems) and Maude Schuyler Clay (photography)

*Confessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (my review is here)

The MasterpieceIn Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories by Niles Reddick (my review is here)

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Lewy Body Soldier by Norman McNamara

Tracking Happiness by Ellen Morris Prewitt (my review is here)

Our Prince of ScribesWhere the Creek Runs by Mary Abraham

*The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis (read my chat with Fiona Davis here)

Rush by Lisa Patton (read my interview with Lisa here)

*Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt (my review here)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

A Southern Season: Four Stories from a Front Porch Swing (incl. Claire Fullerton)

Becoming Mrs. Lewis*Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry

Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott (a few words on this book here)

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain

Navigating Disaster by Sheryl St. Germain (a few words about St. Germain here)

Madstones by Corey Mesler

*Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key (my review here)Congratulations

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

*In Pieces by Sally Field (my review here)

*Educated by Tara Westover

Ya Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonEducated

In Pieces

The Importance of Family

My reunion with my cousin Lea Brackett Smith in November.

My reunion with my cousin Lea Brackett Smith in November.

The older I get, the more I value family. It seems I’m not alone, since my second cousin Lee Brackett Smith friended me on Facebook recently and we discovered that we both live in Memphis, and we haven’t seen each other since we were kids in the sixties! Her father and my father are first cousins. When she saw that I was speaking at the annual Alzheimer’s Caregivers Conference in Bartlett, where she lives, in November, she wanted to come but had a conflict, so we met for lunch instead. I was going to be talking about my book TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. Lea’s mother, my cousin Janet Brackett, has a brain tumor and is showing signs of dementia, although it’s hard to say what the brain tumor might be causing.

Brackett Johnson family treeI had so much fun visiting with Lea. We started drawing a family tree and asking each other questions to fill in the blanks. Then I emailed a couple of more cousins in Mississippi to try to complete the tree. One fun fact is that my grandmother and her brother married Lea’s grandfather’s brother and sister, so there are all sorts of double cousins as a result.

Lea’s mother Janet is from England. When I first met her I was about 10 years old and I was enchanted by her. With her straight black bangs and mod clothes and British accent, she reminded me of Audrey Hepburn.

B Jo Janet Charles Ray and BillyShe married my cousin Charles Ray Brackett back in the 1960s, and Lea sent me these photographs from the wedding. I love this one, with my aunt Barbara Jo and my daddy, Billy Johnson, flanking Janet and Charles Ray.

Charles Ray and BillyAnd this one of my father and his first cousin Charlie holding hands before the wedding!
The last time I saw Charles Ray was in May of 2016, when he came to my mother’s funeral.

He died a few months later, so I was so glad he had come to her funeral.

 

Susan and Jan BrackettSo, this week I was driving down to Jackson for a book signing at Lemuria Books on Tuesday, so I told Lea I wanted to visit her mother. She is now in assisted living, and I went to the lovely facility on Wednesday. I wasn’t sure if she would remember me—we haven’t seen each other in decades, and she has a brain tumor—but when I walked into her apartment, she looked up and said, “Susan!” We embraced and had a lovely visit. I took her the photographs from her wedding, and also new photographs of my family. Her long-term memory is pretty good, but she couldn’t remember that she had been in the hospital a few days ago. She has no pain, only some blurry vision, so she’s thankful to be pain-free.

Jan w iconAt some point I noticed an icon of an angel hanging by her door. I turned it over and read “To Nana from Mitch.” I asked her who Mitch was. He’s one of her grandsons. I asked if he was Orthodox or why he might have given her an icon, and she said no, she didn’t know where he got it. It was one of those icons from Greece with the official information on the back. I told Janet that I used to paint icons and I kissed the angel and asked him to watch over Janet.

As I drove away from Janet’s apartment and back to Memphis, I realized that there are more cousins in Jackson I haven’t seen in years . . . . maybe I’ll hunt them down in 2019!

Educated

Tara+Westover19593_V1I swear I was drawing comparisons of Tara Westover’s memoir EDUCATED to Jeanette Walls’  THE GLASS CASTLE before I read the same comparison in a blurb by Susannah Cahalan on the back cover! I don’t think I got more than a few chapters in before I could see the resemblance . . . the hardscrabble lives that both Westover and Walls lived as children growing up in violent dysfunctional families . . . and especially the love they each maintained for their abusive parents. I think that love and forgiveness are what stand out as most powerful to me in this book. I kept thinking “Get out of there, Tara!” over and over as she returned to the home and environment that almost killed her several times. The power her parents held over her is a testament to the strength of certain mental illness cocktails, such as her father’s bipolar/schizophrenic/narcissism.

west_9780399590504_jkt_all_r2.inddSet in the mountains of rural Idaho in a fundamentalist Mormon sect, Tara and her siblings barely survived their father’s delusional and often violent behavior.  The fact that she was able to leave—much less study and receive advanced degrees at Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge, is nothing short of a miracle. Did I mention that she never went to elementary, middle, or high school? And received no organized schooling at home?

If Westover’s story isn’t enough to fill a great memoir, her writing is the icing on the cake. She has an obvious gift with words, which was only enhanced by the education she received once she was able to escape the bounds of home. And maybe even while living at home, as she read and studied in secret. And by observing her family and the world around her.

I’m a slow reader, but I read this in just a few days. Okay, I’ve been sick and staying home for most of the past two weeks, but usually I resort to television when I don’t feel well. I could not put this book down. It’s up at the top of my favorite books of 2018 now. (I’ll publish my list soon.)

Kudos to Westover for having the courage to not only survive the terrors of her childhood, but to thrive as she moved out to get an education, and then to share her story with the world.

In Pieces

In PiecesIt’s been a few years since I read and reviewed a celebrity memoir . . . . back in 2014 I reviewed Diane Keaton’s book, Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty. She still remains my favorite actress, but I’m also a big fan of Sally Field. So when I saw she had a memoir out—In Pieces—I was immediately interested. And she wrote it herself—taking seven years and lots of literary and emotional energy to achieve what I think is a really good memoir. This article in the New York Times says that Fields “reveals a personal history, darkened by abuse and illuminated by grace, that she has never shared before.”

One thing I loved about the book was how Field writes with such immediacy, often saying that she “only now” realizes such and such about an event from her childhood or early adulthood, as she is writing the memoir. Writing in present tense increased this feeling of immediacy—of discovery—which is so important to memoir. As writers we often write to understand our world and our lives, and this is definitely the case with Field’s memoir.

If you don’t already know, or suspect, she was sexually abused by her stepfather for much of her childhood. But she didn’t know until she was in her sixties and her mother was in her eighties that her mother knew about it—or some of it—and did nothing. I wept as she described her reconciliation with her aging mother, wishing that I had talked with my own mother about my grandfather before she lost her memories to Alzheimer’s. It’s always been my fear that he molested her, as he did me, which would explain a lot about her obsession with food, weight (hers and mine), and later her alcoholism. I hope that my readers—and especially Field’s readers—will seek out the people in their lives with whom they need to have healing conversations while they are still alive.

One thing that struck me strongly in the book was how Field wasn’t able to really enjoy her success as an actress. Even when she won the Academy Award for Sybil, her first serious acting role, her self-image was so damaged that she couldn’t really let herself celebrate. By the time she landed the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, her confidence had grown, but there is always a shadow over her joy. She grows into a wise woman, though, and I’ll close with these words near the end of the memoir:

How you care for your child from the time they are born until they’re eighteen is important, but who you are as a person and parent for as long as you live also counts, and counts one hell of a lot.

Update on FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY

It’s been a few months since I blogged about my short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Back in September I wrote about my journey up to that point:

“Warming Up To Adele (and Short Story Collections)”

Since that time one of the two university presses that was reading the collection has said no, and the other press is still reading. I also queried a small indie press, so they are also reading it now.

Meanwhile, I was looking at the contests listed in Poets & Writers Magazine and one caught my eye:

MagicTartt Fiction Award

This award is for an author’s first collection of short stories, so my book definitely qualifies. The winner receives $1000, publication by Livingston Press, and 100 copies of the book. I sent in the manuscript a few days ago.

I looked at the list of previous winners, and there I found my friend M. O. “Neal” Walsh, whose first short story collection THE PROSPECT OF MAGIC won the award the fifth year it was offered. I remember when Neal read from this collection at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi when it first came out in 2010. (He was leading the annual Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop, which I attended for about seven years. It’s now known as The Yokshop, and it’s the best writing workshop ever. Ever.  I don’t think the date for next year’s workshop is set yet, but watch the website.) Neal went on to publish a novel MY SUNSHINE AWAY, which was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pat Conroy Southern Book Award for General Fiction.

So, my fingers are crossed that FRIENDS has a chance for this award.

And yet . . . if I hear back with an offer from one of the two presses currently reading the collection, I’ll have a (nice) quandary. So far none of the four books I have published have won any awards. It’s not the money I’m after, but the recognition, and the marketing benefit of having an “award-winning” book. I think more people would be inclined to purchase and read the book.

Stay tune . . .  you know I’ll keep you posted! Have a great weekend.

Making Up For Our Years Without Christmas

10885594_685613064885216_9056017391288911443_nFor the first seven or so years of our marriage, my husband and I did not celebrate Christmas. As I write these words, I’m surprised that we rejected such an enduring tradition from our lives for so long. We were part of a cult-like group that didn’t believe in Christmas. We interpreted a scripture verse to mean don’t celebrate any holidays:

“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord, and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.”—Romans 14:5-6 (Orthodox Study Bible)

We weren’t the first people to reject the celebration of Christmas—the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been doing it for many years. But most of the folks in our little group were raised in Christian families and churches in the South, and it was difficult for our families when we chose not to participate. I can still remember how much it hurt to tell our parents that we wouldn’t be giving them gifts and that we ask that they not give us gifts. For so many years our home was not aglow with Christmas lights and enriched with the aroma of pine needles from Christmas trees. A few Christmas cards did arrive in our mailbox, but even those teetered off when we didn’t reply.

Christmas 1978. Jonathan was 16 months old. It was our first year to celebrate Christmas in the 8 years we had been married.

Christmas 1978. Jonathan was 16 months old. It was our first year to celebrate Christmas in the 8 years we had been married.

And then somehow—I can’t remember this part of the story—we changed our minds. I do remember when it happened, because our oldest child was just over a year old. Thankfully he didn’t have to endure years without Christmas, since he was only four months old during the first Christmas season of his life, when we still weren’t participating. I can still remember the joy I felt at seeing his joy—first at the Christmas tree in our home, and then at the gifts, and the sounds and smells of Christmas as we walked through stores and drove through neighborhoods to look at the outdoor Christmas lights.

Burke's 2I love going to stores that are decorated for Christmas. Especially the small stores, like Burke’s Books, where the window decorations are always so creative. As I left with my bundle of books to give as Christmas gifts, I paused in front of the store and sang (yes—and I didn’t care if anyone walked by and heard me) a few verses of “Silver Bells”—especially the part that says, “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style . . . . As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.”

Yes, the music! I had missed singing Christmas carols—and actually I still miss this, since traditional American Christmas music isn’t sung in the Orthodox Church. It’s not that we’re against it—it’s just that those carols aren’t liturgical, and so they aren’t part of our worship. Some of our parishioners do go as a group to sing carols at a local nursing home every year, and some traditional Christmas carols are sung in our church’s annual children’s Christmas play. But being part of the Orthodox Church is still a bit “foreign” to one born and raised in Mississippi, and living for the past thirty years in Memphis. Some Orthodox traditions run counter to our culture.

Like the Nativity fast, which lasts from November 15 until Christmas. This period is similar to the forty days of Lent that lead up to Pascha, the Orthodox celebration of Easter, only a little less strict. We fast from meat, dairy, and even fish and wine on many days. What’s hard about this—especially as compared with the season of Great Lent—is that the rest of our culture is celebrating with delicious food and drink during this time. Everyone else is partying before Christmas (my husband and I are invited to three Christmas parties this year, and look forward to all of them), whereas our church encourages us to begin the celebrations on Christmas, with emphasis on the “twelve days of Christmas” that start with Christmas, rather than ending with it.

I find some of our traditions distract from the season. Like when we celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. We have Vespers, then our teens put on a play about the real Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Parishioners bring toys, which our church gives to a local Christmas “store” for parents who can’t afford to buy gifts for their children. And we share refreshments—candies and cookies that contain no milk, eggs, or cheese. No hot chocolate. No egg nog. These must wait until Christmas Day and after. So it always feels to me a bit like a semi-feast.

Christmas cardsI don’t mean to sound like Scrooge, but I obviously struggle with some of the traditions of my Church. Especially when they seem to tamp down the joy and excitement that I missed during those years when we rejected Christmas altogether. This year I’m trying to be positive and focus on giving to others, prayer, and taking time for silence and inner peace. One way I’m doing that is by incorporating prayer into one of my favorite traditions—writing, addressing, and mailing Christmas cards. As I address each card and write a short note inside, I say a prayer for the person or people who will be receiving the card. Since I send out over 100 cards, this is an opportunity for quite a bit of prayer. And just for fun, last night I counted up the states where our Christmas card recipients live, and found there are 22. It’s fun to think of those friends and family who live everywhere from Florida to the state of Washington, and from southern California to Maine, all receiving our cards, and our prayers.

‘Tis the season, y’all.

My First You Tube Video (for #GivingTuesday)

MS Logo 300The good folks at the University Press of Mississippi, who published SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, the anthology I edited, asked me for a video about the book so they could post it today, on “Giving Tuesday.”

YOU TUBE VIDEO of me talking about SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING.

And here’s the video the press put together which has me and several other UPM authors in it.

PLEASE consider donating to this wonderful literary press, to help them be able to continue publishing so many great books each year. Also consider giving copies of SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING as Christmas gifts this year . . . perfect for anyone who:

(1) reads

(2) writes

(3) likes the South

(4) is curious about the South

There’s also a new review of the book up at the Alabama Writers’ Forum if you’d like to read more about it.

Happy #GivingTuesday everyone! Thanks for reading!

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