Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween or Hawaweeny?

Boo! I guess these guys don’t look all that scary… which was intentional on my part. It was my kids’ first Halloween in Memphis, twenty years ago today. But it was also their first Halloween to go trick-or-treating, ever, although they were 7, 11 and 5. So, what’s up with that?

The group that we were part of on our journey to the Orthodox Church wasn’t too keen on Halloween. In fact, we pretty much believed it was evil. We weren’t alone in our belief. Over the years, many groups and individuals have rejected the holiday, or found ways to entertain their kids in other, healthier pursuits.
Here’s a short video about the history of Halloween, for those sitting at their desks at work wishing it was quitting time:

And another video about how Christians tried to reform Halloween over the years:

Our group celebrated “All Saints Eve” as an alternative. The kids (and sometimes the adults) dressed up as saints. Here’s Jason, as Holy Archangel Michael, back in 1985, when he was four. (Beth would arrive from South Korea just four days later, so she's not in these pictures.)

And here’s Jonathan, when he was eight, with two of his friends… I can’t remember which saints they were.

So, we let the kids trick or treat until they outgrew it, and we gave out enough candy to feed all the poor in Memphis for a few years. Our street was so popular that parents brought their kids from other neighborhoods by the van-loads to enjoy the relative safety and generosity of the folks on Stonewall.

But we won’t be home giving out candy to trick-or-treaters tonight. Tonight we’ll be praying Vespers for St. Raphael Hawaweeny of Brooklyn at St. John Orthodox Church in midtown Memphis. Preparing for the Feast tomorrow morning, with the Divine Liturgy at 9 a.m. and a brunch afterwards. It will be a special day for me, as my dear friend Sue is being Chrismated, and she has asked me to be her sponsor. I’m trying to prepare for that event today with fasting and confession. It’s an awesome responsibility, one of which I am not worthy, but one I accept with joy. One source on this topic does a good job of explaining The Historic Role of the Godparent in the Orthodox Church:

The institution of sponsors (god-parents), who serve as witnesses and guarantors for the faith of the person being baptized and are obligated to edify him in the rules of Christian life, has existed since the first century of the Christian era. Church literature of the second suggests that the sponsors of the first centuries were usually deacons, deaconesses, hermits, virgins, and in general persons dedicated to the service of the Church and thus capable of edifying the newly-baptized in the truths of the Christian faith and its ethical principles. According to the "Apostolic Canons" (3, 16), a male Christian was obliged to take one deacon, and a woman one deaconess as sponsor. This practice has been maintained in the Church ever since, i.e., a person baptized is required to be sponsored by one person of the same sex. According to the Rudder (ch. 50, pt. 2), the person baptized, "when he leaves the saving bath, must be received by one faithful person."

If you want to know more about Saint Raphael, you can read an overview of his life and a list of the thirty parishes he founded in North America here . One of those parishes was St. George in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1906—they celebrated their 100th anniversary as a parish two years ago!

And… twenty years ago this past March, my family, along with about eighty others from Jackson and Memphis, were Chrismated into the Orthodox Church at that parish in Vicksburg.

So, today I won’t be buying Halloween candy. I’ll be trying to fast and pray while preparing breakfast casseroles and cheese grits for tomorrow morning’s brunch… not an easy task for this lover of all things yummy. And I’ll be remembering twenty years of blessings for which I am so thankful today. And asking God’s blessing on my family, including my Godchildren. And if any of my Godchildren are out trick-or-treating tonight, I hope they will have fun and be kept safe from the wiles of the Evil One!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fashion and the Inner Life

When I opened the fall copy of AGAIN Magazine, a subsidiary of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, to which my parish in Memphis belongs, I was intrigued by the theme, “Orthodox and American.” Although Orthodox Christianity was introduced to America over a thousand years ago, it’s seen slow growth, for many reasons. One of those reasons, I believe, is the cultural trappings each jurisdiction has brought with its faith—Russian, Greek, Arab, and others. Sometimes it takes a while for a casual visitor, or even a serious seeker, to sort through what is cultural and what is theological and spiritual in an American Orthodox Church, from any tradition. Especially in parishes where the liturgy isn’t in English.

I always turn first to Fr. Michael Oleksa’s column, “From Up Here… in Alaska,” when AGAIN arrives in my mailbox. In this issue’s article, “The Essence of Orthodox Mission,” he says:

“Our task is to love America. You cannot save what you do not love…. But America cannot hear our message as long as we present it in alien and unintelligible languages, enshroud it in ethnic customs or politics, or withdraw from modern society in disdain or disgust.”

As converts to Orthodox Christianity, some of us—myself included—have at times gone to extremes in our response to certain manifestations of this ancient faith. Like monasticism, asceticism, and even clothing. For several years (my “nun years”) I tried to withdraw from society, reading only Orthodox literature, not watching TV or movies or listening to secular music. And I radically changed my appearance—wearing only long skirts and blouses, covering my head with a scarf in church, and not wearing makeup or jewelry. (That's me, above, with a group of nuns at a monastery in Pennsylvania in the early 1990s.)

It wasn’t all superficial… I really did try to pray during those years. But my inner life became so insular, as I removed myself more and more from the people around me, that the experience only lasted a few years. I began to hunger for the things I had denied myself, including close friendships. I realized that some elements of my spiritual journey at that point were very selfish, and I began to seek a way “back” to center…. to find balance.

Writing is helping. My memoir-in-progress, Dressing the Part: What I Wore for Love, deals with the outer expression of the inner journey, as it uses clothing as the narrative frame for each era of my life. So when I saw Father Stephen Freeman’s article (guest columnist for “Meditate On These Things”) in this issue of AGAIN, “Fashion and the Inner Life,” I was intrigued.

Father Stephen lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and he grew up in the South, like me, but in what he calls “relative poverty.”

“There were very definable social groups within the public schools beyond the elementary level, generally defined by what was worn. There were groups and subgroups. What was most interesting in those years was that nothing distinguished the poor except for the lack of a cohesive group. We were individuals who could not afford clothing that would mark us as “belonging”…. Much of my youth and adult life has seen fashion used to define.”

He’s setting the stage, sociologically, for my book. A difference in our backgrounds is that the area I grew up in was the “rich part of town”… although my family was on the lower end of that spetrum. I didn’t have name brand clothes and shoes until high school, when I was old enough to get part time jobs and buy those things myself. Father Stephen’s description of the part that clothing played, and plays, is right on point.

Father Stephen goes on to call this “the secularization of clothing.” He says this secularization plays a big part in the neglect of the inner life, and “It also explains the fascination the newly Orthodox have with some of the ‘outward trappings’ found in the culture of the Church. The inner life takes much longer to acquire; the outward things come easily.”

I love the parallels he draws between the inner and outer lives… and his acknowledgement of the significance of clothing—of what it speaks about our journeys.

You can hear Fr. Stephen’s podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio here.

Now it’s time for me to get back to work on the book… I’ve drafted 7 of the 18 chapters so far, including “Girl Scouts and Training Bras,” Flower Child Bride,” and “Jesus Freak Hippie.” I’m really looking forward to writing the next chapters, especially “Spandex and Leg Warmers,” and “Church Women and Nuns.” Who would have thought I’d find inspiration for my memoir from AGAIN Magazine? Thanks, Father Stephen!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

HER Mother's Keeper

When she was my age, my mother was taking care of her mother, “Mamaw,” at Lakeland Nursing Home in Jackson, Mississippi. This picture was taken on Mamaw’s 87th birthday, July 16, 1986. Mom was 58, just a year old than I am now. Mamaw died a couple of months later. I’m not sure how many years she was in a nursing home. There weren’t special facilities for people with Alzheimer’s then, or at least not in Jackson. She never fell and broke her hip like Mom did… the Alzheimer’s just gradually shut down her body functions.

In 1986 Mom was just recovering from treatments for cancer… that’s a wig she’s wearing. We’ve really shared (and survived) a lot of common life experiences.

I remember being angry with her when she first put Mamaw in a nursing home, in the early 1980s. I wanted her to let Mamaw live with her and Dad, not in an institution. How could she do that to her mother?

Those thoughts still haunt me today, as I consider my own mother’s future. When I moved her out of her own house and took away her car two and a half years ago, I offered for her to live with us in Memphis. We even bought a house with a downstairs guest suite just for her. But she refused, and begged me to let her stay in Jackson, where she had lived for almost sixty years. That’s when I found Ridgeland Pointe Assisting Living and she became a resident in February of 2006. This is her apartment... the living room. (I just cleaned it out, in case you're wondering where the clutter is:-)

The other end of the living room.

Her bedroom.

And the wall her bed faces, with so much great memorablia, especially pictures of my father.

It's a great apartment, and I hope she'll be able to live there again.

When she was ready to leave the hospital after surgery for her broken hip a couple of weeks ago, I was asked which Nursing/Rehab facility I wanted her taken to. Lakeland (where Mamaw had lived) was my first choice, but had no female Medicare beds available at the time, so she ended up at Manhattan, which seems to be an excellent facility. But it’s not home. And every time I’m there trying to help Mom deal with her confusion and pain, I look at the faces of so many elderly people in the halls in their wheelchairs and I feel pangs of guilt all over again. Couldn’t I take care of her at home, with help from sitters? Isn’t that the right thing to do?

But it only takes a few hours with her to remind me of my inadequacies… I’m just not able to endure her pain, emotionally, on an on-going basis. The sitters have emotional distance (and a great sense of humor) which enables them to possibly be kinder and more helpful.

Friday afternoon I went upstairs to visit with Mom. A huge banner had been hung on the wall that said Get Well Soon!! We Miss You! It was signed by dozens of her friends at Ridgeland Pointe. The director of nursing and the marketing director from Ridgeland Pointe had come to see Mom the day before and brought the banner to her. The sitter had told me that she had no idea who they were when she saw them. And these are two people she saw almost every day for the past two and a half years.

“Oh, Mom! Look at that wonderful banner from your friends at Ridgeland Pointe!”

“What’s Ridgeland Pointe?”

“It’s the assisted living home, where your apartment is… where you’ve been living for the past couple of years.”

No lights go on. Her expression remains blank, so I continue.

“Remember your best friend, Elizabeth, lives there? That’s her, with you in that picture.” I point to the picture of the two of them, which I brought from her apartment last week. She and Elizabeth have been inseparable for the past year or two.

“What’s her name?”


“Is she still living?”

“Yes, Mom. She lives right across the hall from you at Ridgeland Pointe. She has cats, remember? And you eat at the same table in the dining room three times a day.”

Mom points at the door of her nursing home room and says, “Across the hall, here?”

“No, Mom, at Ridgeland Pointe, where you live.”

“I don’t live here?”

“No, this is just a rehab center where you’re doing physical therapy to get your hip well so you can go back home to Ridgeland Pointe.”

“What’s wrong with my hip?”

This conversation, like many others, was repeated several times during the afternoon. When my patience began to wear thin, and Mom’s irritability level rose, I distracted her by asking if she’d like a glass of wine. That seemed to erase the afternoon’s arguments, and I unzipped her suitcase in the corner of the room and pulled out one of the small, screw-top bottles of Chardonnay I had stashed there. I poured it over ice (that’s how she likes it, unless it’s really really cold already) and handed it to her and sat down beside her. As she sipped, she noticed again, the “things” on her roommate’s bureau which she thinks belong to her.

“Those are my things over there. She stole them from me.”

“No, Mom, those are Priscilla’s things. You have your own ice pitcher and flowers and stuff—just look at all these things you have!”

I poured a small cup of wine for myself and tried to draw the curtain to obscure her view of Priscilla’s bureau, and the infamous “parrot picture” that she still claims is also hers.

“Why can’t they put up a partition so I can’t see that side of the wall if those aren’t my things?”

“Because the nurses and CNAs need a clear path through the room, Mom.”

“What nurses? What are CNAs?”

“You’re in a nursing home for physical therapy, and the nurses and assistants are helping take care of you while your hip heals.”

“Well, I just don’t like it here. If fact, I hate it. I hate seeing those things (she waves her hand at her roommate’s bureau) and having that woman (her roommate) over there.”

“Well, Mom, at least Priscilla is up and out of the room most of the time during the day… I see her out in the hall in her wheelchair every time I’m here. You’ve really got the room to yourself most of the time. Besides, why don’t you get out more? You know they have entertainment downstairs in the lobby… I think it’s ‘Old Tunes” today… maybe music from the 40s that you used to dance to. Wanna’ go downstairs?”

“No, I’m not in the mood. I just want to sit here and drink my wine.”

The next day, the sitter calls me to say that she got Mom downstairs to listen to some people singing Gospel music and that Mom was singing along and clapping her hands. She said that afterwards Mom was “mingling” with everyone, smiling and talking like she’d know them forever. And just a few days earlier she had created a scene in the dining room, saying she didn’t know anyone and hated the food.

The sitter said Mom ate a little more on Saturday, and seems to be in better spirits. I told her where the wine was stashed and asked if she would pour Mom a cup later in the afternoon, and she just laughed and said she’s be happy to. (It’s not the same sitter who was reading the Bible to Mom a few days earlier. I have to pick and choose which ones to call on for various tasks.)
Before leaving town I met with Mom’s “team” at Manhattan: the Director of Social Services, nurse supervisor, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and speech therapist. The physical therapist thinks Mom needs to stay there 6-8 weeks, rather than the 3-4 weeks I was initially told. And I found out from the nurse that Mom wasn’t on any pain meds… so they expect an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s to do painful physical therapy a week after surgery for a broken hip? I don’t think so. The nurse agreed to ask the doctor for something she could take in a small dose to help her do the therapy…. The goal, of course, is to have her walking, even with a walker, and able to get in and out of bed unassisted, so she can return to Ridgeland Pointe. My fear is that she won’t improve enough and will be in a nursing home the rest of her life. I know that day might be coming, but I just hope it’s not soon.

We had dinner tonight with a group of friends, most of whom have (or have had) parents or relatives in nursing homes. And while the humorous stories that people shared diminished my anxiety over Mother’s situation a little bit, it’s a delicate peace. The trick is not to picture her in her bed in the nursing home when I crawl into my own bed tonight. That image has haunted my sleep for many nights these past few weeks…. But maybe embracing her suffering is part of what it means to be my mother’s keeper. I wonder how she handled my grandmother’s suffering. I wish I had asked her back in 1986.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Mother's Keeper

After a cruel childhood, one must reinvent oneself.
Then reimagine the world.—
Mary Oliver

I’ve been reading these words, penned by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, over and over lately. Not only because of the things that are stirring in my soul and memory as I continue work on my memoir, but possibly even moreso because of the increasing time I am spending with my mother in her physical and mental decline. The words are powerful to me because I believe that my mother endured a cruel childhood at the hands of her father, my grandfather. And that same cruelty was perpetrated on me in my early years, also by her father.
Mary Oliver experienced this suffering, and she writes about it in her book, Blue Pastures:

“Adults can change their circumstances; children cannot. Children are powerless, and in difficult situations they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them, for children feel all of these things but without any of the ability that adults have to change them.”

What struck me about these words as I read them again this morning, is that my mother has become a child again, a victim of Alzheimer’s and a broken hip. Helpless as a child in her current circumstances, completely dependent upon the kindness of strangers, family and friends. As her only living child, I am her connection to those sources of kindnesses. I am my mother’s keeper.

Thankfully, I have help. Comfort Keepers have been providing sitters around the clock for Mom since the day she entered Baptist Hospital, October 8. I’ve had the joy of getting to know one of those sitters in particular, “Sondra,” a delightful woman from South Africa. She’s been Mom’s day sitter for the past couple of weeks, and now Mom thinks she’s a friend who also lives in the nursing home with her. Every morning Sondra brings Mom a thermos of fresh coffee from her home, with just the right amount of sugar in it. During the afternoons, while Mom is in physical therapy, Sondra takes the thermos to the dining room at the nursing home and refills it for Mom’s afternoon coffee when she returns to her room. She calls me on her cell phone every day and keeps me informed of Mom’s progress, and also of her concerns, so that I can address them with the proper people there—sometimes a social worker, sometimes a physical therapist, sometimes a nurse.

Yesterday Sondra said she had a question for me. “Is that large, colorful picture of a parrot on the wall on the other side of her room hers? It’s hanging by her roommate’s dresser, but your mother is saying it’s hers and she’s telling me to take it down and bring it to her side of the room.”

It’s actually a huge jigsaw puzzle of a parrot, surrounded by tropical plants, that has been glued together and hung on the wall. It’s the only thing of any color on the other side of the room, where Priscilla “lives.” Priscilla is older than Mom, black, and diabetic. I caused a huge stir last weekend when I offered her one of Mom’s chocolate candies. The nurses came flying into the room, wrestled them from her as she was screaming, and then scowled at me for giving her the candy. What was I thinking? Of course I had no idea she was diabetic, but now I understand that you never offer food or drink to anyone in a nursing home (or hospital, for that matter) without asking the nurse.

Nor do you help an old lady in a wheelchair onto the elevator. Mom’s room is on the second floor, and as I was leaving the building one day last week, a woman was struggling to get herself onto the elevator to go downstairs.

“Can you help me, please?” Her hands were gnarled and curled onto the arms of the wheel chair. Her feet touched the floor, propelling her along the hallway.

“Of course,” I smiled cheerfully and held the elevator door open for her. She still couldn’t get the chair over the threshold, and just as I began to help her, a nurse came running around the corner. The lady’s “alarm” had triggered the nurse… she isn’t allowed off the floor. If she had made it downstairs and out the front door, no telling what might have happened.

Again, I listened humbly to the nurse’s explanation and apologized.

As humiliating as they were, both experiences gave me confidence in the nursing home’s care for its residents, keeping them safe from sugar and strangers. Since Mother can’t remember where she is or why she is there most of the time, I’m encouraged by the security in place in the home.

Even when I fought against it at first. When I found they had put Mom in a diaper, I was as upset as Mom was. What an affront to her dignity! She begged me to get her panties for her and to get her out of the diaper.

I charged down to the nurses’ station and asked why my mother was in a diaper, when she’s perfectly capable of using a toilet?

“Her orders say that she can’t put any weight on her legs at all yet. Only a physical therapist can get her in and out of the bed.”

“But, we have sitters with her 24/7. Why can’t they help her?”

“Because they aren’t trained to move her in just the right way. Even the nurses aren’t allowed to do that yet. If she puts weight on her leg in the wrong way, or falls, she could break her hip again. Once she’s done a few days of physical therapy, we’ll probably get orders that she can use the bathroom with help.”

I tried to explain this to Mother. And sweet Sondra patted her hand and told her she’d leave the room when Mom needs to “go” and then she’ll quickly change and clean her. She’s allowed to do that since Mom has the strength to hold onto the bed rail and pull herself onto her side. The sitter isn’t allowed to turn Mom herself.

A week later Mom is making progress with the therapy and I’m told that she’ll be allowed to use the toilet, with the sitter’s help, in a day or two. She seems to find this comforting, and asks for something to write down the date so she will know when she can use the toilet. Mom has survived the past five years or so with increasing dementia mainly by writing things down. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I make it through my day, too.

That and cable TV. I took Mom’s small TV from the bedroom of her assisted living apartment to the nursing home last week, and the Comcast cable guy came out on Friday to hook it up. His name was Mike, same as my brother, who died in January, 2007. But Mom didn’t seem to associate him with Mike. Instead, she just enjoyed his presence immensely.

“Have we met before?” she asked him.

“Yes. In Paris, back in 1948, I think it was.”

“Paris?” Mom looked at me. “Have I ever been to Paris?”

“Don’t you remember our weekend together?” Mike didn’t miss a beat.

By this time the sitter and I were laughing and Mom started laughing, too, and soon Mike had her cable set up and began asking her what kind of TV shows she liked to watch.

Of course Mom didn’t remember, so I helped out, mentioning Atlanta Braves baseball, any football games that involved Peyton or Eli Manning, and old movies. Before we knew it, Mike had programmed several stations that would play these things so that all she had to do was push the “FAV” (favorites) button and it would scroll through those channels. He even included a music channel that played ‘40s swing music. He clicked it on just in time for an old Benny Goodman number, and he and I started dancing and Mom started swinging her arms in the bed and smiling to beat the band.

Yeah, Mike the cable guy is a keeper.

Yesterday the head nurse and marketing director from her assisted living home visited Mom at the nursing home. They were checking on her progress… assessing whether or not she will be able to live in the downstairs/assisted part of Ridgeland Pointe in a few weeks, or whether she’ll have to move to the upstairs/Alzheimer’s wing. I toured the Alzheimer’s wing last week, and I really hope Mom can stay downstairs, where she has the run of the building, with it’s cathedral ceiling dining room, airy and sunny lobby, and front porch. Evidently Mom has become everyone’s sunshine at Ridgeland Pointe, and they all miss her and want her back.

So, Mom was in the living room at the nursing home when Kelly and Erin came to visit. Sondra had taken her down in her wheelchair to hear someone sing, which Mom loves. When Kelly and Erin approached her, she lit up, smiled, and greeted them cheerfully, but soon it became obvious that she had no idea who they were. She sees them every day at Ridgeland Pointe, but she’s been away for two weeks. Sigh. I hope her lack of memory of them won’t be a mark against her. They’ll assess her again next week.

Much more to say here, but I’m off to my Memphis Writers’s Group’s monthly meeting, then driving down to Jackson for a few days. So, this is to be continued. Oh, and my Oxford Writing Group meets Saturday, so I’ll spend the day there on my way back to Memphis on Saturday. Framing my days with Mother between these two escapes into the world of creative writing and literature. That’s what Mary Oliver did:

“Whatever can take a child beyond such circumstances, therefore, is an alleviation and a blessing. I quickly found myself two such blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature. These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place.”

Oh, I think I hear the siren call of poetry and prose coming from my writing group buddies at Starbucks… and the more distant sound of novels-in-progress wafting up from the Yoknapatawpha Writing Group in Oxford.
Oh, and Friday night I'm going with my friends, Father Paul and Sissy Yerger (who live in Clinton, Mississippi) to see "To Kill a Mockingbird" at New Stage Theater in Jackson. Alleviations and blessings, all. 'Bye now.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Writing Out Loud: Your Brain on Blog

The November issue of The Atlantic has an interesting article by Atlantic senior editor, Andrew Sullivan, called “Why I Blog.” A subtitle on the cover of the issue says, “Will blogs kill writing?” I read the article tonight, during commercials as I was watching a new episode of “House.” (And I used to tease my husband for working on his laptop and and his palm pilot while watching two football games at the same time.) Anyway, it’s a good article, and it gave me something to blog about tonight, while I’m putting off a more personal, reflective post about my mother. I’ll still write that one… it’s been percolating for a couple of days now. Actually, I think Mr. Sullivan’s article helped me nail down exactly why I haven’t written it yet. It’s because I care a great deal about the things I want to say about my mom’s situation, and I want to spend some time on it, which I don’t typically do when writing a blog post. As Sullivan says:

“A traditional writer is valued by readers precisely because they trust him to have thought long and hard about a subject, given it time to evolve in his head, and composed a piece of writing that is worth their time to read at length and to ponder. Bloggers don’t do this and cannot do this—and that limits them far more than it does traditional long-form writing.”

That’s it. What I have to say about taking care of my mother seems to be calling out for a more traditional form. Something with permanence. An essay. Or perhaps a chapter of a memoir. I’ve thought about gathering up all my blog posts about Mom and cleaning them up and putting them together as a book of essays at some point. Because even though most of them were written hastily, without much editing, I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback from readers who were touched by them. Loving and caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s isn’t unique. Sadly, it’s becoming more universal. And some of what I have to share about it takes some sorting out. Again, Sullivan puts it well:

“A blogger will air a variety of thoughts or facts on any subject in no particular order other than that dictated by the passing of time. A writer will instead use time, synthesizing these thoughts, ordering them, weighing which points count more than others…. The result is almost always more measured, more satisfying, and more enduring than a blizzard of posts.”

Hopefully my essays, and my memoir, when it’s finally finished, will be more enduring and satisfying than my blog posts. Sullivan addresses the issue that has been raised concerning blogging replacing traditional writing, saying it “is as foolish as it is pernicious…. There is, after all, something simply irreplaceable about reading a piece of writing at length on paper, in a chair or on a couch or in bed.”

So, why do we do it? Why do we blog? Why do we read blogs? (I personally keep up with about a dozen or so on a regular basis, and I’m sure that number is nothing compared with people like Sullivan who are in the journalism business.) Honestly, it’s addictive. Again, Mr. Sullivan:

“Blogging—even to an audience of a few hundred in the early days—was intoxicatingly free….Like taking a narcotic….Blogging is to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. Blogging is writing out loud.”

It is exhilarating. Whether the blogger plays the network game—and I only skim the surface of this resource—with hyperlinks and track-backs to expand readership and invite participation, or even if the blogger is happy with her small readership of family and friends, either way it’s a blast.

A few friends (who don’t blog) have asked whether or not I feel exposed, sharing so much personal stuff with “the world.” Maybe that’s part of its appeal, and Sullivan agrees:

“The blogosphere may, in fact, be the least veiled of any forum in which a writer dares to express himself. Even the most careful and self-aware blogger will reveal more about himself than he wants to in a few unguarded sentences and publish them before he has the sense to hit Delete. The wise panic that can paralyze a writer—the fear that he will be exposed, undone, humiliated—is not available to a blogger. You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts…. That’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality…. You feel as if you know bloggers as they go through their lives, experience the same things you are experiencing, and share the moment.”

Virginia Woolf said one shouldn’t write while angry… that anger (or other emotion) destroys the writer’s objectivity. Maybe that’s true of fiction, but some of my best writing has come crashing onto my blog during moments of anger, sorrow, loneliness, confusion, or joy. Like my post about a year ago, when I drove to the beach for two days alone, trying to sort out some anger and hurt feelings. I just let it all out, uncensored, unedited. The responses (emails mainly) I received from readers were gratifying. So I took those rough drafts that were blog posts and turned them into an essay that was a finalist in a literary magazine contest and was eventually published. I still consider that essay some of my best writing, and I’m not sure it would have been so alive if I had taken days and weeks and months to get the first draft down on paper.

It’s encouraging to read that a successful journalist like Andrew Sullivan has embraced blogging and even uses it as a tool to inform and improve his long-form writing:

“Each week, after a few hundred posts, I also write an actual newspaper column. It invariably turns out to be more considered, balanced, and evenhanded than the blog. But the blog will always inform and enrich the column, and often serve as a kind of free-form, free-associative research.”

If I needed approval for the amount of time I spend blogging, when I’ve got twelve more chapters of my memoir to write, Mr. Sullivan just made my day. Joshilyn Jackson wisely told me, when she encouraged me to start this blog back in August of 2007, that it would either be a very good or a very bad thing for my writing. She said that it would either take all my creative energies, leaving me without the time or fuel for my “real writing,” or that it would energize and inspire my writing. She said that I would know, shortly after starting the blog, which way it would go for me. From the beginning it’s fed my writing rather than being a drain on my energy. Good thing, 'cause I’m hooked now. Like Jason Michael Carroll sings, “I can sleep when I’m dead.”

The down side (other than sleep deprivation)? Watch an interview with Mr. Sullivan about how blogging changes your brain, “Your Brain On Blog,” here.

Concerned about your blogging habit? Check out Bloggers Anonymous’ “Mock 10 Signs of Blog Addiction.”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Senators and Sunflowers

I'm taking a break from posting about my mom, other than to say that she’s still at Manhattan Nursing and Rehabilitation in Jackson, Mississippi, recovering from surgery for a broken hip. We got home to Memphis Saturday night, having been gone for twelve days, including our trip to Seagrove Beach, Florida, and my trip(s) to Jackson to be with Mom.

My second trip to Jackson (Wednesday through Saturday) coincided with two events we had already planned to participate in, so that’s what I’m going to write about today.


My husband spoke at the 2008 Jackson Cardiovascular Renal Meeting in Jackson on Thursday, and attended the other sessions of the meeting on Friday. He was speaking about the ACCORD trial: the action to control cardiovascular risk in diabetes study. There were physicians from all over the world at the meeting, and our Mississippi hosts did a great job (as usual) with hospitality for the event. The Welcome Reception on Wednesday night was at the University Club, with a view of the city just after sunset. Thursday night’s event was “A Taste of Mississippi” at the Mississippi Museum of Art, complete with fried catfish and live music. And Friday evening’s final banquet at the Marriott presented a special treat for everyone, and especially for my husband and me.

Dan Jones, the current President of the American Heart Association,
and his wife Lydia (here they are at our table) arranged for us to sit next to the guest of honor for the evening—Senator Thad Cochran.

Here we are with Dan and Senator Cochran just before dinner.

And here’s Dan with Senator Cochran, my husband, and Dr. Jim Wilson.

So, who’s Dr. Jim Wilson? Well… Jim and I were friends in high school back in the 60s in Jackson… we even posed for a Coca-Cola ad for the high school newspaper once… standing on a trampoline in a gymnasium holding bottled Cokes. The caption said, “Jim and Susan go better with Coke.” (I didn’t write the copy!)

So, I recently included part of that scene in a draft of my memoir-in-progress… and now I see Jim for the first time in almost forty years. I had no idea he was a physician in Jackson. Here we are getting re-acquainted.

Anyway, Senator Cochran was invited to speak because he’s been a big advocate of funding for medical research in Mississippi. Unfortunately he had to leave to attend another event after his talk… here’s my husband trying to bend his ear before he left. I was hoping to hear his suggestions for health care reform, but he kept his remarks local and reflective, rather than global.

My parents were friends with Thad Cochran “back in the day” … and when I told my mother (at the nursing home) on Friday that I was going to meet him that night, she said, “Tell him Bill and Effie Johnson said hello.” Of course my dad has been dead for ten years, but I’m sure he would want to have said hello.

The next day we left the realm of senators and moved on to sunflowers.

Laura Algood’s wedding at Saint Peter Orthodox Church in Madison, Mississippi on Saturday was the second reason for our stop in Jackson en route home from the beach. Laura is one of my favorite people. She was best friends with my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway … the one who was killed by a drunk driver ten years ago. And we’ve been friends with Laura’s parents for over forty years.

So, when we got to the wedding on Saturday morning, there were sunflowers everywhere… in the flower arrangements in the nave, in the bouquets, and in the parish hall for the reception. I wasn’t surprised. Sunflowers were Mary Allison’s favorite flower, and on the back of Laura and Oliver’s wedding program it said:

“The flowers carried by the Matron of Honor are in special memory of Mary Allison Callaway and Charlotte Murray Pace.” (Murray was another dear friend of Laura’s who met an untimely death a number of years ago. Here's a picture of Mary Allison, Laura and Murray at their high school graduation in 1996.) So… at the reception all the guests received these little envelopes of Sunflower seeds with this tradition printed on the back. I guess I’ll be growing dwarf sunflowers soon.

The wedding was beautiful… I love the “dance of Isaiah” around the table on the solea…

And it was a gorgeous day for an outdoor reception on the patio, with bubbles and dancing, sunshine and a pleasant breeze and 72 degrees in mid October in Mississippi.

Laura’s younger brother, John William, was there with his girlfriend from Austin, Elena… he said he’s a fan of my blog, so I said, “you guys wanna’ be on it?” and They said, “yes!” so here they are. John's an architect and Elena's a designer.

And here’s John William catching the garter later. Hmmmmmm.

One of my favorite pictures is this one, of the bride and groom leaving… well the first one is them leaving with bubbles…

But this last one is them approaching their get-away vehicle… a pickup truck (only in Mississippi) with a bicycle in the back. Why the bike? Laura is a long distance runner… and Oliver rides his bike with her when she’s running. They’re headed to the beach for their honeymoon… back to the scene of the crime. They were engaged on the beach.

Yeah… me and Laura are definitely beach buddies. Here we are back in 2006 at Seagrove, when she came down to celebrate our son, Jonathan’s, graduation from flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Somehow I knew she’d get back to the beach…

Enjoy a few more photos from the wedding.

Many years, Laura and Oliver!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Purple Flag Day

I should have asked what the purple flag on the beach meant before I swam into the sunset on Sunday night.

But it was so beautiful and the water was warm and it was magical.
The purple flag means “dangerous marine life.” (And the yellow flag means moderate surf, medium hazard) So, later that night and on Monday my right foot began to hurt… it felt like it was sprained, and the inside of the ankle was tender to touch. And then I saw it—a red swollen place that looked like a bite. So I put Neosporin and a band-aid on it and went into Seaside to do some shopping.

My two shopping goals were a pearl bracelet to match the pearl and leather necklace I had purchased at Rendezvous Wine Bar in 2007, where owner Wendy has now expanded her line to the shop next door to the wine and tapas bar she and her husband run in Seaside. I’d been wanting to get a bracelet to go with the necklace I got back in 07, and I found just the right one.

My second shopping goal was to find a wedding gift for Laura Algood and her fiancĂ©e, Oliver, who had celebrated their engagement on the beach. We’ll be at their wedding in Jackson, Mississippi, this coming Saturday. I found just the right gift at a glass art gallery in Seaside.

But as I left Seaside my ankle was hurting more, so I stopped at the Seagrove Medical Clinic, just a few blocks from our beach house, and I’m so glad I did. The physician’s assistant on call put a hot compress on the bite, gave me a tetanus shot and prescribed an antibiotic. By the next morning the ankle was improved and I could walk without pain. He thinks it was probably a spider rather than something in the ocean… but at least it was healing.

For dinner we tried the nearby Old Florida Fish House. It looked like at tourist trap, but the Fish House Grouper (covered with crab meat) was the best fish I’ve had in a long time. And the guys playing oldies in the bar were also excellent.

Today my foot is better and hubby is better and we enjoyed our last day at the beach. Well, in between phone calls to Jackson, where my mom will be leaving Baptist Hospital tomorrow for a few weeks a Manhattan Nursing Home and Rehab. We’ll be in Jackson through Saturday… hubby is speaking at a cardiovascular renal meeting, and then we’re going to a wedding at St. Peter Orthodox Church on Saturday before returning to Memphis.

So I’ll close from Seagrove Beach with a few more photos from the past few days… next post will be from Jackson, Mississippi.

Sunsets are unique every night and I welcome them with open arms.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Called Out of Darkness

Good morning! It's been a whirlwind... I drove from Seagrove Beach to Jackson, Mississippi on Friday to be with my mom at Baptist Hospital where she had hip surgery on Thursday. She's healing okay, so the plan is for her to go to a nursing home/rehab center for about three weeks, and hopefully she'll be walking again at the end of that time. When she returns to her assisted living home, she'll be in the special Alzheimer's unit where she'll receive more individual memory loss care. Most of this weekend I've spent faxing Durable Power of Attorney forms everywhere, making phone calls and visits to several places, and packing up her clothes from her apartment for rehab. Thankfully the wonderful sitters from "Comfort Keepers" are with her 24/7, and the staff at the hospital have been wonderful. Also my friends in Jackson visit her when I'm not there and give me updates, for which I am so thankful.
Yesterday afternoon my niece, Aubrey, and her husband Tommy came to visit Mom at the hospital and then the three of us went to dinner on the patio at Walker's, where the chef is the son of one of my mother's best friends from Meridian, Missisisppi. The South is such a small world. I slept 8 hours last night, so I'm about to hit the road for Seagrove this morning, and will return to Jackson on Wednesday for a few days.
So... I'm pulling a post out of the can to share with you now... I wrote this about a week or so ago and saved it for after October 7... the date that Anne Rice's new book would be out. Enjoy!
Anne Rice’s memoir, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, is due out October 7. There’s a great series of interviews with Anne about the memoir here.
In Part I she gives a great description of how Catholics (and this is true of Orthodox Christians as well) venerate images, like icons, and for Catholics, statues, but we don’t worship them, as Protestants sometimes misunderstand.

I also love how she talks about using hyperrealism in her work—meticulous attention to detail which raises it up out of the ordinary. In her first interview she says that this technique also made it easier for her to navigate the difficult waters of some painful childhood memories.
In Part II she talks about how her relationship with God was iconic—based on images rather than knowledge. She talks about how she uses both parts of her brain as a spiritual person and as a writer.
In Part III she reveals mischievous childhood actions, including the thrill of breaking into greenhouses and stealing orchids and the darkness of pushing a boy down a flight of stairs. Anne says these events gave her a real insight into what sin is. “We Christians talk too much about sin in other people. I think it’s important to talk about sin in our own lives…. If I could change anything in my life, it would be to take back any unkind word I said to anybody…. I can remember so many hurtful things that people said to me…. So I wonder how many people I hurt that way…. When Christ says to love your enemies, He means to be loving, to be kind. I felt I needed to talk about that in the memoir.” She also talks about the “glamour of evil,” and how she read all the atheists and existentialists and stopped talking to God at one point. She recounts the agony and pain of leaving the Church and God at one point, and I wept as I listened to this part of the interview, because I came close to that same decision about fifteen years ago.
In Part IV she talks about what triggered her return to God. She says she was “pretending to be an atheist.” “I’d been told that to think about God was to be weak, but everywhere I looked I saw God.” In nature, in history. She had a moment of transcendent happiness that started her on the road back to God, and Church, because these are inseparable for Anne. Finally she said, “I’m tired of pretending I don’t believe in God, just because it’s the ‘smart’ thing to do” [in the eyes of the world.]

Anyway, I can’t wait to read the book. It was fun driving past her house in New Orleans when I was there in May, in the neighborhood where Commander’s Palace is, and just imagining this gifted woman at work there.

That’s all for now…. I’m about to make the drive from Jackson back to Seagrove to join my husband for our last 3 days at the beach. Thanks for staying tuned!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Beach Detour

This will be short... I'm at Seagrove Beach celbrating my husband's 60th birthday and nursing him to health after his surgery last week. Our daughter, Beth, was here for 2 days, and now our oldest son, Jon, is here for a few days. We're trying a new beach house we haven't rented before and it's gorgeous. The views are amazing... even during a stormy day on Wednesday.

But I got some bad news last night--my mother fell and broke her hip. She had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulence from her assisted living home, and tonight she had surgery on her hip. I just talked with the nurse and she's doing fine... but I couldn't be there with her because I got sick last night and was up until 3 a.m., well, being sick. And I'm 400 miles away.

Thanks to my dear friends down in Jackson for helping take care of her... for Sharon who went to the hospital late last night and gave me reports until 3 a.m. And to Father Paul and Sissy and Father John for visiting her today.

So, I took the day today to recover so I can drive to Jackson tomorrow for a few days, leaving hubby and son here at the beach. Hopefully I can come back on Sunday for a couple of days, to retrieve my husband and drive him to Jackson for a medical meeting next Wednesday!

The plan sounded perfectly reasonable until last night at 10 pm when I got the phone call that mom had fallen.

So, here are some photos from 2 days at Seagrove... first day was stormy but still beautiful. The sunsets always blow me away. Each one is like an artist's creation.

Today things cleared up and we enjoyed some sunshine. We met a couple from Nashville who joined us tonight at Stinky's Fish Camp...

No time to write anything literary... so I hope you enjoy the photos. And thanks to all who have called or emailed their concerns and prayers for my mother. I hope to post again this weekend.