Monday, December 29, 2008

Wish We Were There

Here’s a new spin on those postcards people send with pictures of themselves in a tropical paradise that say, “wish you were here”—our 2008 Christmas cards are going out just in time for New Year’s, and I think the message should read, “wish we were there!” Here’s the artwork on the card. Yep. Mr. and Mrs. Claus have got the right idea for post-Christmas recovery… margaritas on the beach at sunset. And it looks like Mrs. Claus took some time out for a pedicure and some hat shopping. And neither of them are worrying about silly New Year’s resolutions about exercising and losing weight. Now that looks like paradise.

For those who have been worried about my blog addiction, I am proud to report that I have stayed away from the blog for five days—that’s a record! If you follow the progression of events and photos posted here, you’ll understand that it wasn’t really hard to stay away. Every minute was scheduled up. Let’s take it a day at a time:

Christmas Eve Day

Stacy and Jared Autrey visited from Nashville with their precious daughter, Olivia Kate. Stacy is one of my Goddaughters, and she and Jared have been good friends of our son, Jon, for many years. It was great being together, if only for a short visit.

Olilvia Kate has obviously learned to kiss... and enjoyed practicing on Father Basil!

Christmas Day

Jason and his new bride, See, arrived from Denver at 8:30 a.m. on Christmas morning! I prepared with the usual Cushman traditions, like caramelizing the coffee mugs (dipping the tops of the mugs into sugar which has been melted in a cast iron skillet)

and making mimosas and hiding the pickle.

We’ve been hiding the pickle ornament in the tree on Christmas Eve for years… and its seems like Jon, Jason and Beth have pretty much taken turns finding it—not because they aren’t competitive! It’s just worked out that way. We always have an extra gift for the finder of the pickle. So, this year, our tree is tiny tiny tiny (pre-lit but no ornaments, until Beth put candy canes on it)… so we explained the tradition to See, and all four “kids” rushed at the tree, searching for the pickle.

After a few minutes I said, “you guys need to think outside the box.” That was about the same time Jason was making a dash for the other tree… an even smaller one in the front hall. And there it was!

Here are the kids with Jason holding the pickle, and the pickle gift. This year it was a copy of the New York Times #1 best-seller: Outliers. I liked Gladwell’s other books (Blink and The Tipping Point) and figured any of our kids would appreciate a book about how to be successful. We also gave all the kids there very own pickle ornaments this year, to continue the tradition with future generations.
Breakfast was next, and then stockings and presents.

As usual, there were lots of “gadgets” involved… including my new pea green wireless mouse, Mio Moov (GPS) system, and a small portable printer for when I’m traveling. There were gadgets related to iPods and also cappuccino makers (for Jon, the new home owner). All the girls were happy with artsy new jewelry and Beth got enough books to read 24/7 until she goes back to grad school. Money gifts for the newlyweds new apartment (we really couldn’t expect them to carry furniture back to Denver on the plane) and fancy wine and wine openers rounded out the goodies.

Jon Autrey joined us for our traditional Christmas lunch: Honeybaked Ham, Aunt Barbara Jo’s Dressing (the best!), Sweet Potato Casserole, Marinated Green Bean Casserole, Rice and Gravy, Rolls, and Pecan Pie with Ice Cream. Yum!

Kevin came by later with a fancy architectural 3-D puzzle for Beth, and of course we put him to work on various computer problems that are always around. (He’s a computer engineer.) We ended the day with a Scrabble game and pleasant food comas and football games on tv. Actually, that's kinda' how the past few days have felt!

December 26

The next day we piled into two cars and headed down to Jackson, Mississippi, to visit Granny Effie at Lakeland Nursing Home. (Jon would be leaving from there to head back to Savannah.)

I’m not sure if Mom really knew all her grandkids or not, but she loved the visit and seemed to understand that See was new, whether or not her Alzheimer’s kept her from getting the concept that Jason was married. Or that they would be providing her with her first great-grandchild next July!

We visited in the lobby of the nursing home, where she opened gifts and enjoyed the comings and goings of other visitors.

And posed for group pictures… I’m always wondering which year will be the last, so each year has its own special meaning.

December 27

Saturday was sight-seeing day… showing See around Memphis, mainly Harbor Town, South Main, the Elvis statue, and Beale Street. But it was also “spa day” for the girls… with See getting a haircut, and Beth and See getting manicures and pedicures while Mom and Jason shopped at Oak Court Mall. Somewhere in there we found time for a Scrabble game that ended badly for everyone but Beth, and polished off the evening at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. I don’t remember how we made it home….

December 28

Sunday night we celebrated Jason and See’s marriage at a lovely party hosted by dear friends from St. John church. (Hostesses Reem Mansour, Pamela Mashburn and Deb Mashburn at right.) I know I’m a writer, but in this case I really do think the pictures will speak better than words. When I wasn’t busy enjoying the amazing food and wine, or the company of so many people I love, I played photographer, catching some candid shots but also “posing” groups like they were going to be in RSVP Magazine or something. Lots of fun was had by all, and it was such a joy to introduce See to so many people who welcomed her with love.

Or with stories about Jason, like Father Troy was telling here!

Enjoy the photos! Maybe I’ll be back before New Years’s… but probably not, so Happy New Years!

See is welcomed by our hosts' five-year-old daughter, Sophie, who is also one of my Goddaughters.

And Isabelle and Sophie give Jason some "new daddy practice" during the party.

Sarah and Joel Finley are in town from Nashville...

and enjoyed catching up with Peter McKelroy and his fiance, from Laurel, Mississippi.

Jason reunited with childhood friends, Nicholas Henderson (from Jackson, Mississippi), and Memphians Tim Elliott and Jon Autrey, both also formerly from Jackson.

I found John McGee in the kitchen with Jason's friend from school days in Memphis, Brian Edmondson ...

along with Jason and Beth's friend from the University of Tennessee, Kevin Davis of Bartlett, visiting with hosts, Deb and Tim Mashburn...

I had lots of funs with girfriends: Reem Mansour, and Lori O'Brien and Margaret McKelroy....

And Goddaughters Hannah Snowden and Katherine Thames bond with my daughter-in-law, See...
Nancy McGee and Deacon James Elliott catch up with Troy Mashburn, home for the holidays from grad school in Boston...

Matthew and Hannah conspire with Katherine and Hardy Thames to change the world, one child, book, painting, song, or sociological idea at a time....

We enjouyed lots of laughs with See throughout the evening...

After a delicious meal, the crowd gathered in the dining room for cake cutting...

which I tried to capture from several angles...

It was a wonderful night. This afternoon Jason and See flew home to Denver with an extra suitcase for their new clothes and wedding and Christmas gifts, and hearts full of gratitude for this outpouring of love. Thanks to the hosts and hostesses and friends who came to celebrate their marriage!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Shepherds Are Playing

I was going to name this blog post “This Great and Strange Wonder,” but then I found this post from December 11, 2007 and it had all the same quotes I wanted to share today. So, you can read it here if you’re interested. It’s about the response of the Mother of God to the Incarnation. And now I have to think of something else to post about on this Christmas Eve Day.

Last year on December 24 I wrote a long post with photos called “Christmases Remembered.” So, that’s done.

This morning I’m at home, still sick, and missing the Royal Hours and Divine Liturgy at St. John. I’ll go to the Christmas Eve service tonight at 10:30, no matter how I’m feeling. It’s the Feast of the Nativity and I’ve only missed it once in twenty years (when I was even sicker than I am now) and so I will be there, God willing. I missed our annual children's Christmas play at St. John this past Sunday. They use a backdrop that looks like the icon of the Nativity, and dress up as the shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph, etc. It's always wonderful.

I’m searching my memory, books on my shelves, and yes, the web, for something to share, because my creative well feels a bit dry this morning. Or maybe I’m just letting my physical illness steal some of my joy. JOY! That’s it. That’s what I’m looking for. You see, my mother fell out of her bed at the nursing home Monday night. She didn’t hurt her (broken but healing) hip, thank God. But the nurse said she tried to get up (she can’t walk alone yet) because she “heard someone crying and wanted to help them.” I guess there are always people crying in a nursing home.

And three of my close friends—yes three—have parents in the hospital this Christmas. Well, one was just discharged, but still, it’s easy to let the pain and sadness steal the joy, isn’t it?

So, here’s what I found on my web search. First this site with lots of videos of Orthodox Christian Nativity music and other information about Orthodoxy.

And then these two videos below I found on Father Stephen's blog. I don’t know how old this is and many of you might have already seen it, but it was so joyful that it brought tears to my eyes when I found it this morning. First, I’ll set it up:

This is a beautiful hymn by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, A Serbian Christmas Song

Andjeli Pevaju (in Serbian)
Noć prekrasna i noć tija,nad pećinom zvezda sija,u pećini mati spi,nad Isusom andjel bdi.
Andjeli pevaju,pastiri sviraju,andjeli pevajumudraci javljaju:Što narodi čekaše,što proroci rekoše,evo sad se u svet javi,u svet javi i objavi:Rodi nam se Hristos Spasza spasenje sviju nas.Aliluja, aliluja,Gospodi pomiluj!

(deep voice) no matter what you are doing, spin threads for heaven!

Angels Sing (lyrics)
the night so grand and placid,

a star shining over the cave,

the mother sleeping in the cave,

where the angel of Jesus hast been.
the angels are singing,

the sheperds are fluting,

the angels are singing,

the wise bring it forth:

what the nations awaited,

what the prophets had said,

here and now it is announced,
it is announced and brought forth:

Christ, our Redeemer is born!

for the Salvation of us all.

halleluya, halleluya,

Lord, have mercy!

“Shepherds are fluting” means that they are playing music, in Serbia for example traditionally shepherds are playing wooden fife.

And now for the treat: two Serbian Orthodox Christmas videos that just radiate joy. My gift to you. Just click on each video below and enjoy.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Attic

I know it’s been a while since I posted… and I could spend several paragraphs telling you about how I’ve been sick (still am) with fever, coughing, headaches, chills, etc., but that would be boring. And a few paragraphs more about the three days my daughter and I just spent in Jackson, cleaning our my mother’s assisted living apartment and visiting her at the nursing home. But that also might be boring. Not that we didn't also have a good time at the beautiful new outdoor mall in Ridgeland, Renaissance, where we found the Lucky Jeans store (for Beth) and Anthropologie, which was a really cool place. And yes, we had fun at dinner with my nieces, Aubrey and Chelsea, Friday night, and Aubrey's husband, Tommy, at PF Chang's. Didn't take pictures though.

But what Beth has been doing since we returned to Memphis Saturday afternoon is anything but boring. She’s been cleaning out our attic! Yes. Three days before Christmas.

Here’s how it happened. We were talking about houses (she’s in architecture grad school) and she was suggesting ways I could make our current house (which I don’t like) better and I was saying I’d rather just wait ‘til I get into a house I really like, but she realized how much the disorder in this house is bothering me, especially the attic, because if I clean out something in the house, like a closet or bookshelves or drawers, there’s no place to put stuff I want to store. Seriously, you could not walk through the attic as it was… dozens of yucky old cardboard boxes, many opened with their contents spilling out. I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of it … it would have made a great “before” picture. Instead I took it after Beth emptied everything out of it, into her room, which opens directly into the attic on the second floor of the house.

Here’s the almost empty attic.

But here’s how it happened. When we got home from Jackson, we unloaded all the stuff from my mom’s apartment (my car was packed full) upstairs, into the room where all the boxes of stuff from her house have been since I cleaned it out in May of 2006. So that room now had about 20 boxes of “Granny Effie stuff.”

Next we went to Home Depot and bought 40 large Rubbermaid tubs with lids and white tape for labeling everything with a black Sharpie.

Over the next 24 hours, Beth completely cleaned out the attic and room with Mom’s stuff, threw away a good bit of stuff, packed up quite a few Goodwill boxes, and organized everything else into the tubs and labeled them. And in the process, as she found treasures I hadn’t seen in years, I would get excited and think about ways to use them in my newly organized house. And so many photographs I haven't been able to find as I've been scanning pictures from albums in our den as I continue to work on my memoir.

Here it is—my newly organized attic. Voila!

And here’s the other end. Pretty amazing, huh? Almost makes me want to put in rugs and a rocking chair. Almost.

So, now I can start to clean out the stuff that’s bothering me downstairs and finally feel at peace in this house. We kept a dozen empty containers for my overflow when I start with the closets and drawers downstairs. Yep. I’m really hoping for a serious trickle down affect… a reorganization that starts at the top.

And my realtor is going to love our attic when we get ready to sell and find something that works better for our lifestyle. When the market gets better. Now we’ve got one of those attics that house-shoppers walk into and say, “Oh, my God! Look at how organized they are!”

Who knew that an organized attic would end up being the Best Christmas Present Ever? But it is. Thanks, Beth.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Support Your Local Independent Booksellers

Yesterday I picked up my order at Burke’s Books here in Memphis. Over $200 worth of books for Christmas gifts. And yes, I could have saved some money by ordering on Amazon or other online sites, but then I thought, “what have they done for me lately?” Or rather, for the writers who enhance our lives with their art?

It was delightful to stop in at Burke’s and visit with owner, Cheryl Mesler and remember delightful evenings with writers reading and signing their books at Burke’s. I think the first reading I attended at Burke’s was John Grisham signing The Firm back when Burke’s was on Poplar and under different ownership. I actually did an interview with Grisham following the signing, for a literary magazine in Oxford. But more recent memories are of Beth Ann Fennelly’s reading from her poetry book, Unmentionables, this past summer. But I also remember how Cheryl, her husband and co-owner Cory, and the other staff always help you find what you need. Last year I walked into Burke’s and just described one of my children’s tastes in books and she led me to authors I didn’t know and books that he would love. It reminded me of that scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where Meg Ryan’s character, the small bookstore owner, walks into the big mega-store and overhears a customer asking one of the clerks about a certain well-known author and he had never heard of her.

So, yesterday I asked Cheryl (left) how business was going this Christmas season and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “oh, it’s slow, but it’s slow everywhere.” I was thinking about how everyone has to decide where to cut back. And again how important art is to our culture. I’m doing my part as a consumer, buying hardbacks whenever I can. A friend and fellow writer once told me that she always tries to buy hardbacks from living authors because they need the money. For dead writers, she goes to the library. Not a bad plan.

There’s a short little piece by Roy Blount, Jr. at Square Book’s website called “Buy From Your Local Bookstore Now,” that says it better than I can.

So, today I’d like to encourage everyone to stop by their local independent bookstore and browse and visit with staff members and buy gifts for family and friends. Even for folks who aren’t big readers—they need it most! I know lots of my readers live all over the country, but I’m just going to list the booksellers I know personally in the Southeast: (click on the names to link to their websites for directions to each store)

Burke’s Books in Memphis, Tennessee.
Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ve got lots of posts that involve Square Books, but here’s one about Camp Square Books, this past July.

Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. Here’s a post about meeting Delaune Michel and hearing her read at Lemuria.
Page and Palette in Fairhope, Alabama.
Over the Transom in Fairhope, Albama.
Carpe Librum in Knoxville, Tennessee. Read my blog post about my visit to Carpe Librum in September.
Wordsworth Books in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Faulkner House Books in New Orleans.

And yes, even during this busy season I’ve been reading voraciously. It’s an essential food group for a writer, and one of my recent feasts has been A Sound Like Thunder by Sonny Brewer. Having met Sonny at Southern Writers Reading in Fairhope in November, I was anxious to get into his books, and I started with this one. It’s a jewel… literary writing that doesn’t bog you down with too many pages of descriptions of trees (I’ve got a touch of ADD) and keeps you turning the pages, wanting more. But also pausing and re-reading a sentence, or even a paragraph, every now and then, just for the sheer beauty of how the words sound. Sometimes I read them aloud, like this sentence, describing an extraordinary sunset:

“I knew better now than then that not even a magician with words or paints or music could handle the picture in the sky when God is feeling frisky, showing off, baking for his mortal children the daily bread of the eye.”

And this section, where Sonny is describing, through the eyes of the teenage protagonist, Rove McNee, the process of healing the loss of his complicated father:

“My hope of relief lay at the eye of this thing, and seeking work among men who had known him would put me in the middle of the hurt. And the hurt had surprised me, springing unexpected from my psyche like a determined tendril from a scuppernong vine, curling towards the light, a brightness issuing from forgiveness. It’s easier to reconcile a bad story if you know the sense behind its first line.”

A young writer, Scott Morris, captured my senses with his first, and also very literary, novel, Waiting for April. Here are a few amazing metaphors and phrases:

“My little experiences with her when I was growing up, the sort that most people would discount as mere child’s play or fancy, were for me the wet clay of my slowly setting world.”

And since I love sunsets, I’m always taken with the endless ways gifted authors have of describing them:

“The sunsets, especially in the warmer months, were thick as fruitcake, dripping like caramel, a swarming canvas of buzzing colors. An expert would point to the great humidity visited upon that part of the country, how the light refracts again and again through pale planets of water that catch flame and turn into a billion tiny palpable prisms, but I say it is nothing less than the exalted exhalations of angels.”

And here’s one more paragraph, describing young Roy Collier’s search for the truth about his father:

“The convolutions and confrontations. The constant zigging and zagging between peace and paranoia. The relentless reverberations from missing facts and well-kept secrets. The ghosts, goblins and lore. The endless stories and the endless stories within those endless stories. With a mere flick of my wrist I could set that glowing globe spinning in Mother’s darkened library and the entire world repeated itself to me over and over again.”

I read these brilliant writers not only to feed my art-hungry soul, but also hopefully to learn from their finely tuned craft. To be a better writer. When I was picking up my Christmas gifts at Burke's yesterday, I also picked up a book for myself, so if my blog had a "Susan's Bookshelf" section, this would be on top. I started reading it last night. It's Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos. I loved Kallos' book, Broken For You, so I was eager for her latest work.

So, whether you’re a writer or a reader or both, or even if you only have a slight sense of the importance of literary art to our lives, give the gift of literary to someone this Christmas. Or to yourself. And buy it from your local independent bookseller. Can't find one? Look here.

Happy shopping!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Transcending Art

The Yoknapatawpha Writers Group held its second annual Christmas meeting and dinner party this past Saturday, hosted again by Patti Trippeer here in Memphis. (Group photo by Doug McLain, includes: Herman King, Patti Trippeer, me, Michelle Bright and Daphne Davenport.) Ladder in background, I think Patti would want me to say, is because she's not finished trimming her gorgeous Christmas tree! Last year's party was in January, when things are a little calmer. It was brave of Patti to host this close to Christmas!

Coffee and breakfast treats and lunch and dinner were seamlessly interwoven throughout our day of critiquing each other’s manuscripts and challenging and encouraging one another in our craft. Six writers from five cities in three states came together for this intense twelve hours of work and play.

Writing groups can be very intimate settings for soul-baring and soul-searching and one must learn that delicate balance—allowing just the right amount of access to your soul. It’s difficult to hold onto the boundaries sometimes

As one person reveals the works she’s doing for a journalism class at Ole Miss and another begins to share family stories from a distinct but distant place and time, and another mixes memory with fiction in his stories from the war and yet another creates a voice like Scout in Mockingbird with her child-like clarity, we all are learning to treat each other’s treasures with tenderness but also with truthfulness.

And yes, I got my dander up when challenged to consider a different approach to my work and even a bit frustrated that I couldn’t find words to describe with clarity exactly what it is I’m trying to accomplish.

But this morning my frustration was greatly diminished when I read Haven Kimmel’s blog post. Haven was doing an email magazine interview and was stopped in her tracks by this seemingly simple but oh so complex and personal question:

“What do you hope to accomplish (italics mine) with your books?"

You’ve got to read her response! I’m not even going to quote much from it because it’s just too wonderful and I might misrepresent it. Except for this one part that I must share for those who might not go to her blog and read it:

Writing a book is an accomplishment in and of itself, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for. The question was phrased such that I imagined my books going out into the world and doing something, like qualifying for one of those obscure Norwegian sports in the winter Olympics. Maybe one of them would join a boy band, and another could buy a bar in the Florida Keys. Then I decided it was the pronoun “I.” I don’t have anything to do with this, the books are themselves, discrete. They aren’t about me, there is no “I” in them. I would argue that even the two memoirs aren’t about me: they are studies in a particular way of crafting memoir.

Studies in a particular way of crafting memoir. That’s it. That’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not just about me or the other people involved in the memoir. I keep going back to what Scott Morris told me in the workshop at Ole Miss last June—you have to get up above the truth and create art.
I love the quote Haven opens with in today's post:

The object of writing is to grow a personality which in the end allows one to transcend art. Lawrence Durrell
If that doesn’t make you want to read her blog post, I don’t have anything more to say to entice you. Just read it. Here.

So, I’ve interspersed photos from our day together on Saturday, and now I’ll close with a big THANK YOU to Patti for hosting (again) and to Herman for his amazing bananas foster and to Doug for the wine and fruit salad and to Daphne for being so wonderful (even though I did get mad at you) and for Michelle for her bubbly enthusiasm and youth that we all need a shot of. And to the spouses who made it for dinner—and I’m so sorry I didn’t get a picture of us all at the dinner table! But Doug sent me this one of my husband, with the caption, “Chilled.” I think that says it pretty well, Doug. Father Basil came straight from Vespers at St. John, where several new members were Chrismated, which explains the black cassock at the writing group party!

I really love each of you and am so blessed to have you as friends, and also to be able to trust you with my treasures. You are helping me grow a personality that will hopefully allow me to transcend art through my writing. Lofty goal? But isn’t that the only kind worth having?