Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Windows to Heaven: Saint John's 2008 Vacation Church School

Saint John Orthodox Church (my parish here in Memphis) is holding its annual Vacation Church School this week. The young women (for the most part) responsible for the amazingly creative themes and activities at this event each summer keep trumping themselves year after year. One year they chose saints who had special relationships with animals to be the names of each “team” … like Saint Seraphim’s Bears and Saint Ignatius’ Lions and Saint Simeon’s Snakes. They followed this theme of nature and our connection with the earth throughout the week.

Then one year it was all about the Holy Mysteries… and they followed “clues” all week to discover the mystical aspects of worship and spirituality.

This year, the theme is “Windows to Heaven”… which is all about icons. Today was Day 2 of 5, and the only day I was asked to participate in, so my photos are just from today. Kudos for the planning and all five days of energetic leadership go to organizers Caitlyn Manning (center) and Gigi Snowden (2nd from right), and helpers Kim Hilal (far right) Clark McGee (far left), and others who just showed up to help serve snacks, clean up, take pictures (thanks, Claire, great with child!) and pray with us.

Pray with us. Yes. Each day begins with Third Hour Prayers upstairs in the nave. After which our pastor, Father John Troy, gives a “mini lesson” to the children, and an icon card to go with it! Today it was about Joaichim and Anna, Jesus’ grandparents. After that, he invited the children up on to the solea, where they could see through the Royal Doors in the sanctuary (altar area) as he blessed an icon, sprinkling it with Holy Water as he said a special prayer (right.)

Then he invited everyone to kiss the newly blessed icon before dismissing us back downstairs for the morning’s activities.

Caitlyn led the children in songs, many of which came from Gigi Shadid’s CD, Fruits of the Spirit including the song, “Icons are Windows to Heaven.” All through the week, whenever anyone said, “windows,” the children would respond, “to Heaven!” and throw their arms up in the air, index fingers pointing to Heaven.

The teams were organized this year around COLORS… with each team learning about the meaning attributed to the colors used in icons, like RED for martyrdom and GREEN for new life and PURPLE for royalty, etc.

I wasn’t there on Monday, but I heard that Kim Hilal gave a great lesson on the iconoclasts which will help the kids understand even more what a great victory it is that we celebrate every year on Orthodoxy Sunday.

So, today, it was my task, as an iconographer, to demonstrate some of what is involved in writing (or painting) icons. In an hour and a half. To a room full of five to eleven-year-olds.

I started out showing them pictures of the stages of an icon. And then letting them take turns “breathing” (slow, hot breaths) onto the clay (which has glue added to it) which has been painted on the halos of an icon…

…so that the gold leaf will stick to it. This process, called oil gilding, is just one way of applying gold leaf to icons. The breathing warms up the clay and activates the glue.

They all did a great job breathing and applying the gold leaf.

(And don't you love those blue fingernails? Christina is from a family of artists!)

Pavel (above) got the technique down really quickly... and Lydia (right) did a great job applying the gold leaf after the breathing was done.

Joe (left)

and Kate (right) made great "Darth Vader" sounds as they breathed on the clay! (It's hard to keep a straight face when you watch this process, but it's an ancient technique and it really works!)

Next I demonstrated how egg yolk emulsion is made… separating the egg yolk from the white, and then removing the membrane by rolling the yolk on a paper towel, then poking a hole in the yolk and letting the insides run into the container. Holy Water is added to this emulsion, and this is what is used to mix with the dry pigments, making egg tempera.
Finally, using very watery egg tempera, the children painted the base colors—green, red, yellow and brown—used on the icon of the “Angel of the Lord,” or a prototype (sketch) of the icon on paper. In doing an actual icon, it would be done on wood covered with linen and layers of gesso, with lots of sanding to prepare the board.

But for today, the children were happy to paint their paper icons… and to learn more about windows…. to Heaven!

Saint John’s Vacation Church School 2008 continues on Wednesday through Friday this week, where the kids will learn more about this important element of Orthodoxy, and will have the opportunity to mount icon prints on wood, and enjoy a special time of prayer, music and fellowship.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Are These My People?

Saturday was a long day. I left Memphis at 8 a.m. headed to Oxford for my monthly critique session with my fellow writers in the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group. It was going to be a sad day of goodbyes to two new friends:

Michael, (front of table in dark blue) who just joined our group in June, is moving to Florida with his wife, Jeanette, in August. Michael’s about to start revisions on a great novel he drafted while living in Oxford this past year. (He and Jeanette moved to Oxford from California, after he retired from 18 years as a prosecuting attorney.) Needless to say, he’s using those experiences to great advantage in his book, and I can’t wait to say, “I knew him when!”

And Scott, (white t-shirt) one of our instructors at the Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshop in June, joined us for coffee and later drinks, before his departure (also in August) for California. Scott’s got two books already published and is seeking representation for his third novel. He’s been so generous with his time and encouragement to us fledglings, as so many published authors are.

So after a day of work, several of us decided to drive down to Philadelphia, Mississippi, for the 2008 Neshoba County Fair’s second night. It’s an event I’d heard about my whole life, but had never attended. Part of the impetus was that Tom Franklin would be reading from his story in the anthology, Southern Fried Farce , and of course we wanted to go hear him and show our support. (That's Jim Dees introducing Tom for his reading, right.) The Thacker Mountain Radio Show which airs from Off Square Books in Oxford on Thursday nights during the fall, winter and spring months, would be taking it “on the road” to the fair Saturday night, with great music in addition to Tom’s reading.

So, Doug headed over to Tupelo to pick up his wife and kids and meet us there, while Herman and I made the two and a half hour drive straight down to Philadelphia in a separate car. Shortly after leaving Oxford, Herman asked if I would mind stopping for a few minutes to see some of his people on the way. We were barely going to make the 7:30 show as it was, but of course I said okay, where do they live and he said I’ll show you when we get there.

Somewhere south of Oxford we turned off Highway 9 at Pine Flat, Mississippi and down a winding road to the Pine Flat Methodist Church Cemetery, where most of Herman’s relatives are buried. We got out and walked around in the steamy heat, and he showed me the graves of his great-grandparents, grand parents, parents, and aunts and uncles. As he walked from grave to grave, introducing me to his people and carefully straightening an American flag here, tenderly picking up a dead flower there, Herman remarked that he needed to send a check to the church there to help with maintenance at the cemetery. I looked at him and admired how much he cared about his people, and I thought about my people.

My mother’s parents and grandparents are buried about 150 miles away in Meridian, Mississippi. My brother and my father and his people are mostly buried in and around Jackson, Mississippi. Of course all of this stirred me up to thinking about that Rodney Adkins song again, “These Are My People,” (watch a video here )especially these lines:

These are my people.
This is where I come from,
We’re giving this life everything we’ve got and then some.
It ain’t always pretty, but it’s real,
It’s the way we were made, wouldn’t have it any other way,
These are my people.

And in one of the verses later:

Even if we are a bit disturbed,
These are my people.

I’m thinking about these words when we arrive at the Neshoba County Fair. Well, not right at first. At first I’m thinking about how I’m going to make it up the muddy hill on the cow pasture they’re using for a parking lot. I watch the two guys in the pickup truck in front of me sliding backwards down the hill when they don’t make it up the first time. Once they make it, I floor it and steer close to the side of the hill, so my right tires can get some traction on the grassy part, and in two shakes I’m at the top of the hill, where the fair worker directs me to turn down the next aisle of parking. As I pull in beside the pickup truck and open my door, the guys in the truck holler at me, “Wow! You’re really a good driver.”

They’re probably in their 20s and looking at me and stopping themselves from saying, “for a girl.”

I just smile and look at the driver of the pickup and say, “Thanks. You did okay for a guy.”

About then Doug and his wife and kids walked up and we all had a good laugh before hiking through the mud and wet grass (and swatting off the ants that were biting my feet) to the main gate of the fair.

Cars were parked along both sides of Highway 21 for a mile in either direction of the front gate, and once inside, the sub-culture that is the Neshoba County Fair was more than I was prepared to absorb in a few hours. First the cabins.

600 (yes) darling, I mean darling¸ little two-story cabins decorated in shabby chic colors and furnishings with strings of lights and Japanese lanterns strung everywhere for rows and rows in every direction. Some of these cabins have been owned by certain families for generations and others are leased out yearly. The ones around “Founder’s Square,” where the pavilion that houses political speeches and literary readings and musical entertainment sits in the middle, must be worth a fortune. In Philadelphia, Mississippi? Yes. Because everywhere I looked, I saw hundreds of Beautiful People who looked like several generations of old money and Mississippi beauty queens and golden boys.

My first reaction was, “I need a beer.”

Doug looked at me like I was crazy and said, “it’s a dry county.”

“What? How on earth can this be called Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty® and there be no beer?”
“Oh, there’s plenty of beer. They let you bring in as much as you want to. They just don’t sell it.”
My throat suddenly felt very dry and my nerves very edgy as I looked around at the people entertaining dozens of guests on their front porches around the square, all sipping wine and beer from plastic cups. I looked for a familiar face. Since most of the folks looked like they had been in my sorority or my husband’s fraternity at Ole Miss, I thought surely I’d find someone I knew that I could go up to and say, “Hi! Remember me?” and then somehow work into, “I didn’t know you couldn’t buy drinks here,” in my best Southern-eze.

But as I searched the crowd, while everyone looked familiar in a generic sort of way, there was no one I could put a name with. And I began to wonder… who are these people?

A few minutes later Doug brought me a giant lemonade from the midway, which actually tasted great, and I thought, okay, I can do this. I can hang out here in this nether-world with “my people” stone sober and just soak it up. Just enjoy the music and Tom’s reading (both were great—here are some photos) and hanging out with my writing buddies and not even notice that everywhere I look I see more Beautiful People. Thin, gorgeous women and girls with beautiful hair and luminous faces, some in strapless sun dresses and sandals or cute little rain boots, others in shorts or capris or jeans with tank tops or peasant blouses, all glowing with that quintessential Southern accessory, a summer tan. And golden boys with khaki shorts or jeans and button-down-collar long-sleeved shirts rolled up to the elbows or t-shirts with cool slogans on them. A few cowboy hats and boots and more than a few aging yuppies with beer guts, but for the most part, they seem to have aged well.

Tom’s reading was great. And Afterwards, being the gracious person he is, he went to the Howorth’s cabin and came back to the square with two cups of cold beer, one for himself and one for me! (I think Doug told on me.) We shared a few laughs, especially when Tom said he considered, for a moment up there on that stage where so many politicians have given speeches and will be speaking all week, raising his hand in the air at the end of his reading and shouting, “Obama ’08!” We shook our heads: probably not a good idea.
It was then, as we stood around and talked shop for a while with Tom (who’s great about sharing stories and tips about agents and editors and the publishing world) that it hit me: Are these my people? Not the thousands of beautiful people in the pavilion and the cabins, but the half-dozen struggling writers standing around Tom in a semi-circle. Because it was in this circle that I felt at home.

In the larger circle that was the Neshoba County Fair, a micro-cosm of the Old South, I couldn't help but notice that there was not one Black person to be found on Saturday night. Well, unless you count one of the security guards who showed up around 9 p.m. Not one. In a state that has the highest percentage of African Americans of any of the 50, not one of them came to Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty®. I mentioned this to someone, and he said, “I’ve never thought about that. They could come if they wanted to, but I guess this just isn’t their thing.”

Not their thing? Great music and political speakers and literary readings and food and fellowship outside on a summer night in Mississippi? Black people wouldn’t like that?

Or could it have something to do with the fact that less than 3 miles from the Neshoba County Fair, in 1964, three civil rights workers’ bodies were found buried on Olen Burrage's Old Jolly Farm, having been savagely beaten and shot three times? The juxtaposition of that part of Mississippi’s history with the fun and games of the Beautiful People on this summer night in July was a powerful image for me to hold in my head.
Driving home to Memphis (arriving around 1:30 in the morning) I thought about it a good bit. I was born in Jackson and lived in Mississippi for 37 years before moving to Memphis in 1988. And I’m continuing to try to connect with “my people” as I hone my craft with other writers at workshops and critique sessions down in Oxford. But as I think about the Beautiful People at the Neshoba County Fair, and the writers and artists and musicians who had been invited there to celebrate life together in Mississippi, without their beautiful Black neighbors, I still wonder, are these my people?

Friday, July 25, 2008

So Much Cooler Online

A dear friend has a blog I enjoy very much, and one day I checked in to see what she had written, and the title said, “I’ve Got Nothing.” She just felt empty and bored and didn’t have much to say, so she told us how she felt, and it was actually encouraging to me. And of course, once she started writing, she came up with a few interesting things to say. I think it’s because having a blog is kind of like having a talk show, where you hope that your “audience” is eagerly waiting for your next post. And like me, this blogger feels constrained to write something great and have great pictures and all that for every post, but sometimes, our tank is empty.

So, that’s how I’ve felt for a couple of days, like “I’ve Got Nothing” to say here. Or at least not a “hook” or a “thread” that I think people will want to follow. So I’ve given myself a couple of days to breathe and think about why I’m feeling this way, and here’s what I’ve come up with: I’m so much cooler online. Like the character Brad Paisley created for his song (click on the arrow to view the video below) I’m feeling like a fraud—like I’ve created a façade to make me feel better about myself.

And like Alice Peacock’s song, “Into the Light,” which you can listen to here , I do keep “looking for answers outside myself.”

You keep looking for answers outside yourself,
When you’ve had them the whole time,
It’s time to see yourself as holy,
Time to see yourself complete,
It’s time to set aside the anger,
The spirit of defeat.
Come into the light, yeh, be the one you’re born to be;
Into the light, wake up from your lonely sleep,
The shadows can’t conceal what the light wants to heal,
Come into the light. Come into the light.

This is nothing new…. I’ve been doing it all my life. And I’ve learned a lot about why I’m that way, and hopefully I’m making some strides to heal… with therapy, prayer, letting people love me, writing essays, and my memoir-in-progress.

But last weekend I was with a group of people on the balcony at City Grocery in Oxford, having drinks after one of the author readings at “Camp Square Books,” when someone said two things that gave me pause.

First, he said, “Susan, you’ve got a great blog.”

That felt authentic and I just smiled and said, “thank you.”

But then he added these words, “and you’ve got a great life.”

I was speechless. I’ve only known this person a few weeks, and yes, we’ve exchanged a few emails and visited a few times when I’m in Oxford, but his words made me feel like I had created a persona on my blog, like Mary Chapin Carpenter says in her song, "He Thinks He'll Keep Me,": (watch the video here)

“Every Christmas card showed a perfect family!”

So I sent him an email saying thanks for the compliment about my blog, but when you said, “and you have a great life,” I thought, “how do you know?” And then I proceeded to write about some of things in my life that are not so great, and here’s (part of) what he wrote back:

People say all kind of things to you and they don't put any thought into it. I say you have a great life on the balcony at CG, and I meant it, but only after the most shallow observation. How do I know?!?! People weigh in on matters just to be polite. Or just to be mean. Or just to dump their shit on you. Don't let that happen to you. My hunch is you know good and damned well what the deal is on a lot of this stuff, but you, like the rest of us, are looking for some mysterious visitation of grace, some secret passed along by a stranger that solves everything, some sign, some book that provides the eureka moment, some philosopher who nails it all down. Those things tend to happen when we least expect it and after we've already engaged and gone to war.

And then he gave me some really good advice about how to “engage and go to war” with the things in my life that aren’t so great. It was just what I needed to pull me out of a slippery slide to depression that I had climbed onto. I especially liked these words:

Quit listening to everybody. You have more information than you can make use of as it is. Get out of the abstraction, the peculiar and painful bliss of big confusion.

Get out of the abstraction. Wow. And the peculiar and painful bliss of big confusion.

I’ve never thought of bliss as painful, but I can see how it is. Because all it does is delay the inevitable... and distsract you from the reality of what’s right before you, on your plate, right now. And what’s on my plate right now?

The people in my life that I love and care about—my family and friends.

My ongoing wrestling match with God and His Church.

My memoir-in-progress and several essays at various stages of revision, which is to say, the work I have chosen.

So, now I’ve blown my cover and everyone (who didn’t already know this) knows that I’m So Much Cooler Online. But today I’m going to listen to my friend’s advice, and to the wise lyrics of Alice Peacock, to quit looking for answers outside myself, to set aside the anger and spirit of defeat, and to see myself as holy… to come into the light.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

5 Irish Boys Discover “Late Nights” in Oxford by Guest Blogger, Beth Ann Fennelly

I was emailing with Oxford’s poet laureate, Beth Ann Fennelly, about the good time we had during “Camp Square Books” in Oxford last week, when it struck me that even her emails are like lyric essays, dripping with honey and vibrant with color as the words flow easily through her fingers and onto the keyboard. She had told me (at one of the readings at Off Square Books) about the crazy party she throws for her husband, Tommy, every July, and that she was sorry I had missed it and I said I didn’t know I was invited and (pang pang went my heart with a mix of regret and surprise that she would consider me, well, a friend) she started telling me about it but then the author started the reading so she said she’d email me later. The email was so yummy that I asked her if I could post it on my blog, asking her, in effect, to be a “Guest Blogger.”

She emailed me back with laughter at the thought of me wanting her words for my blog but said “sure, go ahead,” so here it is: a very informal, off-the-cuff email from Beth Ann that puts a new twist on Southern hospitality. Enjoy!

Next year I will remember (I hope) to remind you about Tommy's b-day party, a big silly party I throw every year for him, and always on the hottest day of the summer. If you remember, email me early July and I can tell you the date. Everyone loves this party and I think it's because the party is so casual. What Tommy wants is not to have to dress up, all afternoon have outdoorsports and Bud Light Drinking that continues into the wee hours. I don't go to any fuss besides baking three cakes, all three the same, two layer pink velvet cakes, Tommy's favorite and a local legend (here you can imagine me blowing on my nails and buffing them on my shirt. . .) No other cooking or fussing much: I get mounds of pulled pork, beans and slaw from B's BBQ (in a local gas station, but good) and set it up on the table and folks help themselves. People usually come in shifts--students and the young (I remember when I spoke of them, the young, with a first person pronoun) who want to be there when we tap the keg at 4 and play badminton and don't care how hot it is. Saner folk who arrive at 6 or 7ish, in time for the 'que. Others who arrive around 10 when the sane folks leave. And then the bartenders and cooks in town who arrive when they get off work at midnight and one p.m., some even later though I went to bed at 1 pm myself feeling sheepish but of course at that point I'd clocked in nearly ten hours of the party.

This year was a particularly good one. Did Doug tell you about the 5 Irish boys that were in Oxford for an overnight during their 7-week, cross country road trip? They were sleeping sometimes in cars or camping out, and wanted to be writers, and, really, they couldn't have been more adorable. So I invited them to spend the night at our house. (Having accepted so much hospitality that year I lived in the Czech Republic, I feel obliged to pass it on when I can). I left the bar that night around 10 and told the Irish boys, all 21, where we lived and that we'd leave the house open for them to come in and find bed/floor/couch space. At six I woke up with Thomas ("MommyDaddy. . . MommyDaddy. . . " he calls it over and over until we appear) and saw that they weren't in the house. I figured they changed their minds. . . turns out they hadn't even gotten in yet. They found a "late night"--the word here for parties after the bars close—and they repeated the word so often I could tell they were happy to been in on local slang--and one of them had a black eye because he'd gotten into a fight with someone on the topic of "moral authority" (only the Irish get into fisticuffs on philosophy). So I fed them a ginormous breakfast they proclaimed "brilliant" (they ate so much) then they slept and woke up in time for the tapping of the keg. Later at the party they got out guitars and sang Irish ballads, Dylan, and the entire White Album, and I pulled up a chair outside under the pear trees (we've strewn them with mardi gras beads) and sang along.The next morning when we got back from church they were gone, and I felt a little unaccountably blue even though I knew they had to head to the Delta. I guess part of me wanted to be 21 and in a car heading across country, and part of me was sad the party was over and wasn't lookingforward to the rest of the clean up (I'd already picked up the cups and cake plates--but there were plenty of cigarette butts to dig out of my garden, for example).

Anyway, I was rolling up my sleeves when the Irish came back (Dennis, Liam, Brian, Brian, and Brian)--they'd gone out to get me flowers. I was so touched that they'd done that--gone to Kroger and picked me up a little mylar-wrapped $4.99 bouquet, especially knowing how broke they are. . .all four of us stood in the driveway and waved until they were out of sight.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Define "Important"

Real Simple Magazine is running its first ever Life Lessons essay contest. I’ve been a fan of (and subscriber to) Real Simple since its very first issue, and have often mused, after reading the monthly Life Lessons column, on what I might write if given the opportunity. Well, here it is, with a September 9 deadline, so I’ve got plenty of time to ponder, write, revise, and even run my drafts by my two writers critique groups for feedback before polishing my entry, right?

As I began the process this weekend, I realized right away how easy it would be to get stuck in the first step and end up never writing the essay! While “pondering” the theme of the contest—“What was the most important day of your life?”—I decided that I was going to have to define “important” before I could proceed.

You see, I mentioned the essay contest to my husband and he immediately said, “July 13, 1970.” That’s our wedding anniversary. And yes, it’s definitely way up there on the “list” of most important days of my life. I could also throw in the dates that we adopted our three amazing (now grown) children as candidates for the essay, back in 1977, 1984 and 1985. And how about March 14, 1987—the year I was Chrismated into the Orthodox Church—which was the culmination of a seventeen-year spiritual journey? Or, if I wanted to be technical about the most important day in my life, how ‘bout March 8, 1951, the day I was born?

You know, the Orthodox Church commemorates its saints on the day they died, rather than the day they were born. It makes sense, when you consider that the story of our lives on earth isn’t finished until we die. Many there are who lived lives of debauchery or hurt many people by their violent acts or their greed, only to make a huge change of heart—a “repentance”—before dying. Some of those people touched many others by their death, bringing healing and peace.

On the other hand, I’m sure there are those whose lives look pious and loving throughout many years, but might not continue to the end, giving up, like the athlete who doesn’t finish the race. So, it seems that caution should be used before lauding the living.

How does that apply to writing an essay about “the most important day of your life”? Just this: I don’t believe that I’ve experienced that day yet. It could be today. It might be another thirty years or more. As a cancer survivor since 2001, I was given the opportunity to consider, if only briefly, what that day might hold, and how I might fare when faced with imminent death. I was given a reprieve, as surgery proved to be a cure. And yes, maybe I did live a little more gently for a while, until I passed the oncologist’s “safety mark” of five years.

But if this criterion is used for the essay, that the day of our death is the most important day of our life, the only folks deserving of entering would be those on death row or nearing the end of their battle with disease. And since I’ve been involved in caring for six people during their final days, maybe I do have an advantage…. maybe I’ve been allowed a glimpse, through their eyes, of what that day will be like.

So yesterday I set about to begin my research for writing this essay. Here’s how I began: Define “important.”

The contest rules didn’t say to write about the “happiest” day of your life. Maybe "important" could also mean the most tragic day. The instructions did say it could be “a day noted for its poignancy or its hilarity,” and gave examples of the day you started your dream job or left a bad work situation.

So, I looked up “important” at the Merriam-Webster online dictionary where they give, as the primary definition of “important,” this:

“marked by or indicative of significant worth or consequence: valuable to content or relationship”

After staring at the definition for a while, I went to one of my writer tools, the Visual Thesaurus, and that’s when the search got really interesting. Four of the alternate words offered for “important,” with their meanings and examples are:

of import—of great significance or value—“important people,” “the important questions of the day”

authoritative—having authority or ascendancy or influence—“an important official,” “the captain’s authoritative manner”

crucial—of extreme importance; vital to the resolution of a crisis—“a crucial moment in his career,” “a crucial issue for women”

significant—important in effect or meaning—“a significant change in tax laws,” “a significant contribution,” “significant details”

Now I find myself at a crossroads. How I choose to define “important” will definitely impact the “event” I choose to write about in the essay. So, the next layer of research that I lay down is to go back and read as many of the Life Lessons columns as I can. I generally save one year of back issues at a time, but every issue doesn’t contain this column. So far I’ve read about six Life Lessons columns, looking for a hint of what the editors at Real Simple are after. Some of my more puritanical writing buddies would say that this is a very superficial, consumer-oriented approach, and that I’m selling my soul by trying to please an editor with my writing, rather than pleasing myself. I get that. Only problem is, I’m not the one giving out the $3000 prize money for the winning essay. Nor am I the one with the power to get this essay published in a magazine with a huge circulation. So yes, I care what the editors think.

So now I’m remembering what David Wroblewski said during his reading at Camp Square Books this past Wednesday in Oxford:

“Writing a novel is like dumping everything you’ve got into a pot and stirring it up…. Writers are artists who make their own clay, and the name of that clay is The First Draft.”


That was the sound of me throwing my clay into the wheel head. Next I’ll have to work the clay with my hands, finding the center, defining its boundaries, shaping it and smoothing it until hopefully, it becomes a work of art. In this case, a 1500-word essay that skillfully portrays to the world what I consider to be the most important day of my life. Or most crucial. Or most authoritative. Or most significant. Or the day of most significant value. Or the day having the greatest effect or meaning. Or influence. Or….

Whirrrrrrr…. That’s the sound of the potter’s wheel turning. You can watch a video of this process here . Looks like dirty business to me, but Flannery O’Connor called writing “dusty work.” Hmmm… I’d better go change out of my Sunday dress first.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Camp Square Books: The First Draft

I arrived in Oxford on Wednesday with my friend, Sue, just in time for Day 5 of “Camp Square Books.” Best summer camp I’ve ever been to! We got 10% off the author’s books, a free book bag and Square Books coffee mug. Mine has a quote from Flannery O’Connor that I love: Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.

The author for Wednesday night was David Wroblewski, reading from his best-selling first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
We bought copies of the book to be signed and were just beginning to enjoy a glass of wine and crackers with cream cheese and Hot Pepper Jelly when my friend, Michael Risley (from the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group) and his wife, Jeannette, arrived. I was glad to see them, especially since they’ve bought a house in Florida, near Michael’s family, and plan to leave Oxford next month. We’ll miss our new friend but wish them well down in Gator land. Here's Jeanette and Michael with Sue, waiting to get their books signed.

Wroblewski was humble and personable as he asked me about myself while signing my book. Truth is, I wouldn’t have been so excited about meeting him or reading the book if Stephen King hadn’t given it such an incredible review. See, it’s about… dogs. And of course, I’m a cat person. But I was eager to find out what all the ruckus was about… the book was #6 on the NYT Best Sellers list on Sunday, having moved up from #9 the previous week. (That's Square Books owner, Richard Howorth, left, giving David a few pointers just before his signing:-)

David did not disappoint. His “reading” was more of a craft talk, and I loved every word of it. It reminded me of Beth Anne Fennelly’s craft talk at the Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshop in June, when she showed us how to pull from different wells—different sources—for our work. David said he could track back to three key elements, or sources, for his book:

What he called an old-fashioned preoccupation with place. The book takes place in central Wisconsin, not an easily recognizable place. He creates the Sawtelle farm and sets it down on the border between the town and the Chequamegon National Forest… between “the wild world and the domestic world”—which he says will be a thematic tool in the book.

The second element he pulled from was what he called his “radically misplaced interest in the theater.” He did summer stock after high school, but quickly became bored with the craft of acting while embracing the stories of the plays—especially the Shakespearean plays where the elements of wind, rain and fire played such a big role. No spoiler alert needed here, as he said:

“This book is a story haunted by another story—I hope it’s surprising—it’s a braid, and all the strands of the braid together make the story.” [Hint: The Amazon review mentions Hamlet….]

The third element is his lifelong fascination with dogs. In his book, he says the dogs are “not a fictional device—not there for comic relief.” He wanted to tell a story where “the stakes for the dogs are as high as the stakes for the people.”

Wroblewski pointed to Jack London’s book, The Call of the Wild (1906) and Vicki Hearn’s book Adam’s Task as influences for his writing, saying, “We write the stories we wish we could read.”

He reinforced advice I’ve received elsewhere recently, that it’s important to get the first draft down without a lot of “watchers”… saying:

“Writing a novel is like dumping everything you’ve got into a pot and stirring it up…. Writers are artists who make their own clay, and the name of that clay is The First Draft.”

So... this blog is a first draft... there's so much to say in my letter home from camp that I took David's advice and just dumped it all in here and stirred it up!

After a fun evening of drinks and conversation about writing and publishing at City Grocery, with the author, and Richard and Lisa, Cody,Lyn, Scott, Sue, Patti, and others, Sue and I enjoyed a late dinner at Boure before heading back across the street to the Downtown Inn and Suites. Our first day at “Camp” did not disappoint.

Now it’s Thursday morning and we walked across the street for a few hours of writing at High Point Coffee. Here’s Sue, working on a poem on the patio outside High Point. Such a good camper, doing her homework:-) It’s so nice to be able to walk everywhere we go during “Camp”…. Since all the events and free-time venues are right here, around the Square.

After lunch with Patti and a swim at our hotel, we headed back to Off Square Books for Andrew Dubus III’s signing and reading from his book, The Garden of Last Days. Dubus is the author of the best selling book (and movie) The House of Sand and Fog, but I had heard of him from his cousin, the author DeLauné Michel when I met her at Lemuria Books in Jackson and again at Davis Kidd in Memphis last month. You can read about that experience on my blog post of June 12 and June 18, if you missed them the first time.

Andre started out by saying that he was a friend and fan of Larry Brown, and he wasn’t sure he could have written this novel without reading his. He introduced Brown’s widow, who was at the reading, and then said that Brown “had an uncanny way of getting into people’s heads and revealing their hearts.”

He set up the novel for us by telling us that it takes place in 2001 on the Gulf Coast, and “stars” a stripper named April, a single mom trying to make ends meet by stripping while raising her daughter. He contrasts her life with that of the terrorists who arrive in Florida prior to 9/11 and visit the strip joints.

Andre said a writer has to “respect the imagination—we all have drama, some have trauma, but it’s the ones that stay—the images that stick around—these are what we use for our writing.” In this case, he had an image of a wad of cash on a bureau that stuck around, and eventually turned over in his imagination as he wondered what it would be like for a stripper to have “blood money” in her possession. (Money from the terrorists.)

Dubus lives in Boston, near a man who was on one of the planes hijacked by the terrorists. He knows the widow and drives past the house frequently. But he also researched heavily, reading the Koran, the history of Saudi Arabia, and several books about 9/11, including The Looming Tower. He read The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong, which deals with the history of fundamentalism. And then he spent five years writing the book.

He’s been criticized for “sympathizing” with the terrorists, because he wrote the book from their point of view, often showing the human side of them, saying that instead he “empathized” with them. He defended this approach, quoting Hemingway:

The job of the writer is not to judge but to seek to understand.

I was interested in his discussion about what he called “the difference in making something up and imagining it... The revision process is about finding the difference between those scenes and cutting the ones you made up.

You can listen to Andre reading from his book on NPR here.

At the end of a lively Q & A, Patti, from our writers group, asked the question no one else would ask:

“How did you research the strip scene down in Florida?”

With candor and a great sense of humor, Andre shared about his road trip with his brother and his best friend down to the Florida coast to see what those places are like, first hand. Here’s Patti, meeting Andre afterwards…

And the three of us together after the reading.

Oh, I forgot to tell you about Mamacita! This is her, on the stage at the back of Off Square Books… (below, on the left)

and here she is, signing my Camp Square Books Certificate.

You can see her name on the bottom of the certificate, here (left.) Mamacita and I had a nice visit both nights.

On Thursday night after drinks on the balcony at City Grocery (again) Sue and I had dinner at Waltz, a fairly new restaurant on the square. Later we met back up with Patti at Proud Larry's for several hours of great music by Aaron Hall, one of the bartenders at City Grocery. Aaron writes most of his own music, and the band has a CD coming out in the fall. He got a nice review in the Oxford Music Snob. His My Space profile tags him as “soul, Italian Pop and Christian rap” but I would have also said blues and soft rock. But what do I know? He lists Ray Charles as his first influence. My favorite song was, “All I want is you to dance to my music,” which lots of folks did, (dance to his music)... but NOT ME. Patti, Sue and I had a great time on the front row watching the fun. Of course Aaron and the drummer (you can’t seem him in this pix) are both just 23… younger than my youngest child. The crowd was mostly 20s and 30-somethings, and at one point Patti turned to me and Sue and said, “I bet a lot of folks in here look at us and think we’re mothers of the band members here to watch our children play!” Thanks a lot for the reality check, Patti!

So, that’s my letter from Camp… oh, and I forgot to mention how fun it was to sit with Beth Ann and Tom at the reading Thursday night, and to visit with Richard Wednesday night, and with Scott both nights. What a great bunch of folks. I think I can speak for Patti, Sue, Michael and myself when I say we were definitely Happy Campers! Can’t wait ‘til next year!

P.S. A note about my favorite Camp Food: Fried Mashed Potato Smiley Faces at Boure's! Yum!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The So-Called Environmental Crisis

The Spring 2008 issue of The Handmaiden (A Journal for Women Serving God Within the Orthodox Christian Faith) has as its theme, “Good Stewards of the Earth.” I was drawn to it when it came in the mail for several reasons.

One is that I’m a fan of John Chryssavgis, Spiritual Advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on Environmental Issues. I loved his article in this issue, “Church and Environment: Theological and Spiritual Insights.” Of course one reason I like him is that he understands icons in such a spiritual way, citing them as one of three ways of perceiving the world:

· Icons (the way we perceive creation)
· Liturgy (the way we celebrate creation)
· Asceticism (the way we respect creation).

Chryssavgis says:

The icon restores and reconciles. It reminds us of another way of living and offers a corrective to the culture we have created, which gives value only to the here and now. The icon reveals the inner vision of all….the iconographer struggles to hold together this world and the next, to transfigure this world in light of the next. For, by disconnecting this world from heaven, we have in fact desacralized both…. The icon speaks in this world the language of the age to come…. In this respect, the entire world is an icon, a door opening up to this new reality.

As an iconographer, I can attest to this struggle to “hold together this world and the next.” But I think that’s also our task in our worship, as Chryssavgis continues:

What an icon does with matter, the liturgy does with time…. Liturgy, then, is precisely a commemoration of this innate connection between God and people and things. It is a celebration of the sense of communion, a dance of life. When we recognize this interdependence of all persons and all things…then we may begin to resolve the environmental crisis. For then we will have acquired, as St. Isaac the Syrian noted…, “A merciful heart burning with love for all of creation—for humans, birds, beasts, and demons—for all God’s creatures…. We must now learn not to treat even things like mere things, because they, too, contain the very trace of God.

Chryssavgis explains more about what he calls “the environmental crisis” in his new book, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today:

Our age is faced with a unique challenge. Never before, in the long history of our planet, has humanity found itself so “developed” that it faces the possible destruction of its own environment and species. Never before in the long history of this earth have the earth’s ecosystems faced almost irreversible damage…. Therefore, our responsibility lies in accepting the need to respond in a unique way in order to meet our obligations.

Again, in his article in The Handmaiden, he continues:

We are treating our planet in an inhumane, godless manner….

And he offers the third of his three “ways of perceiving the world” as part of the solution—asceticism:

There’s a price to pay for our wasting. And this is the value of ascesis; for only a spirit of asceticism can lead to a spirit of gratitude and love….The ascetic is one who is free, uncontrolled by attitudes that abuse the world, characterized by self-restraint, as well as by the ability to say “no” or “enough.”… Without asceticism, none of us is authentically human.

I am so busted as I write these words—I almost backed out of posting on this subject once I got started on it, because I am a terrible example of the very words I am espousing here. I waste things. I’m not a good faster. I am a major consumer. My asceticism is wimpy. But we all have to start somewhere, and the articles in this issue of The Handmaiden are pretty convicting.

I doubt that many folks will respond as radically to the call as the Johnson family, who write about their personal experience of “going green” in “A Worm Farm in My Kitchen?” But there's some solid scientific advice in "Ozone & Orthodoxy" by Dr. Anne Thompson, Professor in the Department of Meteorology at Penn State University. Dr. Thompson participated in the climate assessments which were put together by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change) which won the Nobel Peace Prize last fall with Al Gore. Thompson lives in a certified green building in Maryland, easternvillage.org.
I can’t embrace the Handmaiden’s editor’s words in the front of this issue, when she includes “unusually violent weather rip[ping] through our habitats and claim[ing] human lives” among what she calls the evidence of man’s disregard of the earth. Do we really cause violent weather?

But I can’t stick my head in the sand and deny that there is an environmental crisis. So, when I read Deacon James Elliott’s article, “Environmental Crisis,” which begins on page 5 of the Summer 2008 issue of our parish newsletter, the Evangelist, I was a bit confused by what seems to be such a different presentation of the situation. Deacon Elliott’s first sentence reads:

This is a brief reflection on the response and reaction we as Orthodox Christians might have to the so-called environmental crisis and the movement that attempts to address it.

So-called environmental crisis? So, is Deacon Elliott, speaking for “we as Orthodox Christians,” saying there is no environmental crisis, when the Spiritual Advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on Environmental Issues (John Chryssavgis) has just written a book to address it? And when the publication which represents over half (the women) of the Orthodox Christians in this country (The Handmaiden) just devoted an issue to it, inviting Chryssavgis to contribute a lead article?

Deacon Elliott says that there are two “contrasting views” … two responses to this “so-called” environmental issue:

One response is to write off any concern for the environment as unnecessary….Another response is to accept the concept that there is indeed an environmental crisis. As caring Christians, we must therefore accept the basic philosophy of this movement and do all that we can to support it as a necessary way to care for and preserve the earth for our own and future generations.

Elliott rejects both of these views:

Both of these responses, I think, fail to grasp how Orthodox Christians and God-fearing believers before them have viewed this material world around us for thousands of years.

Deacon Elliott devotes the bulk of his article to the question: “How do we view this world?” He quotes Fr. Alexander Schmemann (from For the Life of the World):

When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is a “sacrament” of God’s presence…. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world.”

I was anxious for him to explain more about how the world of nature becomes “cut off from the source of life” …. I’m thinking he means that we, mankind, have severed it from its source by our selfish world view and neglect. But instead, Elliott spends the rest of the article recounting a story from The Prologue which he says “helps reveal the Orthodox understand of this world we inhabit."

It’s a story about King Philip of Macedon, who harshly punished one of his courtiers for ingratitude. You can read the story in the complete article here, but the main points Elliott highlights are:

All the earth belongs to the King.
A good steward using the King’s gifts to help others.
If someone takes these gifts by force for himself the King will judege him harshly.
If you forget #2 and #3, refer to rule #1.

He sums up the article with these words:

How do we view this world? By living out what this story and Psalm 23 teach. Anything other than this leads us and those around us into environmental crisis.

So, if Deacon James believes that an incorrect world view will lead us “into environmental crisis,” it begs the question, are we not there yet? Or does he intend something different in his last sentence from his first, when he referred to the “so-called” environmental crisis?

I guess I’m throwing down the gauntlet—I would love to hear from lots of folks on this issue… especially those guys blogging over at Ante-Occidents, and In the Sixth Tone, and The Ochlophobist , and of course Erin over at When We Fast and Caitlyn at The Caitlyncosm and Terry at Wildly Disparate.

If you aren’t a blogger and don’t have a Blogger or Google (or other) i.d., it’s easy and only takes a minute to create one: Just click on “Comments” to leave your comment, then follow the simple instructions to register. It’s free and really easy.

Can’t wait to hear from everyone.

Tomorrow I’m off to Oxford for the final two days of “Camp Square Books” sponsored by Square Books, with my friend, Sue. We’ll be meeting up with Doug and Patti from my writing critique group, and Scott from the Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshop and others for two days of author readings and signings and a fun time hanging out on the Square. Watch for a post this weekend. Meanwhile, I’ll be checking in, hoping for comments!