Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Crossing the Aisle: A House Divided?

My friend and fellow iconographer, Kerry, came over Tuesday to work on the icon of the Mother of God, Directress. It’s the one she and I have been working on together for a while…. one of two icons that will go in the front of the nave at St. John Orthodox Church, our parish here in Memphis. The other icon is Christ, the Lifegiver. Here’s Kerry, putting the finishing touches on the icon─she’s really good at the details, like this gold trim on the Holy Virgin’s sleeve.

And here’s the finished icon. Well, we still have to varnish it, which we’ll do when the icon of Christ is complete. The icon of the Mother of God will be placed on a stand in the front of the church, on the left side of the aisle. The icon of Christ will go on the right side. Worshippers will light candles and offer prayers before these icons… no matter which side of the aisle they sit or stand on during services. It’s not like the people on the left side are followers of the Mother of God and the people on the right side are followers of Christ. We all embrace the Son and His Mother and we have to cross the aisle in order to do so.

Watching President Bush deliver his State of the Union message Monday night reminded me of the another President’s warning, in 1858… that a house divided cannot stand. The partisanship was so vivid, with Democrats and Republicans seated across the aisle from eachother, and with standing ovations limited almost exclusively to one side. Whether or not one believes the two-party system is a good idea, who can deny the damage done to the House─the United States of America─by the hurting things said and done to fellow Americans across the aisle.

I’ve been standing and sitting on the left side of the aisle in my church for many years. I’m not sure why this is, but we are all creatures of habit, and this has become my habit. As far as I know, it was never a decision that I made based on the choices of other parishioners that I did or did not want to be near during worship services. But this past Sunday when I went into the nave for the Divine Liturgy, I sat on the right side of the aisle… on the far right end of a pew, so that I could put my left leg, the one in the cast, up on a pillow on the pew during the service and be able to face the front more easily. It was strictly a move dictated by physical disability. It worked well, so I’ll be sitting on the right side for the duration of my cast-wearing experience. And then I’ll probably cross the aisle back to my “regular” pew… where my five-year-old Goddaughter can find me easily when it’s time for Communion. And where, well, where I’ve become comfortable.

So, after Liturgy, during Coffee Hour downstairs in the fellowship hall, I laughed when a friend said to me, tongue in cheek, “Are you mad at someone on the left side of the aisle?” We shared a knowing look, and then I explained the reason for my move. We laughed again, but also commented briefly, that we both know people who have, indeed, crossed the aisle to avoid sitting near people with whom they have unresolved issues. And yet we exchange the “kiss of peace” before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ during the Sacrament of Holy Communion… a physical expression of the spiritual reality of our unity. Don’t get me wrong…I’m no stranger to anger. And I’ve refrained from receiving the sacrament for weeks at a time due to my sinful anger. Almost every time I offer my confession at the Sacrament of Confession, my confessor asks me this question: “Are you at peace with those around you?” It’s an important question. We compromise the unity of the church when we refuse to let go of anger… when we refuse to forgive.

Again, I’m speaking to myself first here… forgiveness doesn’t always come easy for me, when I feel that I’ve been wronged. I even wrote an essay about it called “Blocked.” I was blocked from writing─not writing prose, but writing icons─because of my unwillingness to let go of this destructive anger. Finally I was able to forgive and to ask forgiveness, and the healing could then begin.

I’ve been asking friends who they will vote for in the upcoming presidential election. Friends on both sides of the aisles at St. John Orthodox Church. Which seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with their political choices. I have dear friends on both sides of the issues at stake, and I am still undecided. Yes. But this much I know: my decision to vote for one or another political candidate won’t change these friendships, which aren’t based on our politics. These friendships are based on our mutual love and commitment to the well-being of the other. I’m so thankful for friends like these.

Like Daphne and Nancy, who both visited and signed my cast recently. These are both Southern gals… and yes, I’m sure our friendships are more natural because of shared cultural roots. I was reminded of this fact recently when a transplanted Northerner shared with me her struggle to make friends here in the South. I agreed with her that “Southern hospitality” can be very superficial… that just because someone will cook you a meal and run errands for you when you’re sick, doesn’t also mean they want to let you into their “inner circle.” Intimate friendships without shared history are probably rare, and certainly take lots of work and desire on both parts. This was a lovely woman who has lived in the South for ten years and is still lonely and isolated. It seems that her struggle has to do with people being willing to cross a different “aisle” … the Mason-Dixon line.
Later I thought about my mother-in-law. She was from New England and was a military wife who made friends easily wherever she lived. Of course, making friends on military bases with other officers’ wives isn’t the same and trying to break into a cultural “click.” But I watched as Ginny reached out to people in her church and in her neighborhood after her husband retired from the military, and even in the South (Georgia and Mississippi) she always made friends. I guess she was fortunate to find folks who were willing to cross the aisle for her. And they were equally blessed by her friendship. Even though she wasn’t from the South.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The End of Faith, Chapter 2, or Why I Didn't Get to Sleep at All Last Night

An old 70s song by the Fifth Dimension comes to mind as I begin my blog post today. You can listen to it here.

At 2 a.m. I was still tossing and turning. Well, with this heavy cast on my left foot, it’s more like scrunching and tugging and lifting. Ugh. But I’ve been sleeping with a cast on my foot for almost three weeks now, and this was my first near sleepless night. So… I’m thinking it was my mind and not my foot that was the culprit. When I was a little girl, I had to take tranquilizers to sleep at night for a while. (Yes, in the 50s.) And the doctor told my parents not to let me "watch TV or read anything stimulating for an hour before going to bed.” Even in grade school and junior high, I would lose the “off” button for my brain and end up sleepless in Mississippi, or worst, sleep-walking… even out of the house and down the street.

Yep. My pre-sleep ritual last night consisted of, you guessed it, reading Chapter 2 of Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith. Disturbing stuff, if you take him seriously. And evidently thousands of people took him seriously enough to buy the book, making it a Best Seller. And even when lots of folks wrote letters to him, protesting his book, he answered with a second book, Letter to a Christian Nation. He’s on a roll. Usually I wouldn’t care. Wouldn’t even read the book. But as I said in my last post, there’s this friend I love very much who asked me to read the book.

Thanks so much to everyone who commented on my post about Chapter 1. And thanks to my friend, Josh, who shared the March 2007 issue of Touchstone Magazine with me, which has an article about Harris’ book by Graeme Hunter, philosophy professor at the University of Ottawa and author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza’s Thought. I wish I could link to the article through Touchstone’s online archives, but it isn’t one the articles set up by them for linking to. So, I’ll share a few quotes here. The article is titled, “Faith of the Faithless: Why Sam Harris Can’t Stamp Out My Religion with His Own.” (If you want to read the article, send me an email and I’ll send you a photocopy.)

Harris makes a few interesting points, but I should confess to finding his book to be one of stupefying banality. To have come to such a globally negative judgment about a book is normally reason never to mention it in public, but I make an exception in this case because it has appealed to so many thousands of readers and so many learned reviewers in respected journals.

Hunter gives a glimpse into the later chapters of the book here:

It is not surprising that Harris gives few details about his plan for ridding the world of faith. He confines himself to a few words near the conclusion of his book. “It is a matter,” he writes, “of finding approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that make no appeal to faith and broadcasting this knowledge to everyone.”

And one more:

One great weakness of The End of Faith is that Harris does not prove that the dangers posted by religion are any different from those posed by the police, doctors, or government—or aggressive atheists, for that matter—or that its benefits are not worth the risk in the way theirs are. He does not show why it is not sufficient that we scrutinize religious claims and reject them when they are false. Instead, he takes for granted that religions are always dangerous, and always wrong, and therefore that we would be far better off repressing them.

So… on to my brief quiver of quotes and comments on Chapter 2: The Nature of Belief

Right off the bat Harris tries to take away our freedom:

Believing a given proposition is a matter of believing that it faithfully represents some state of the world, and this fact yields some immediate insights into the standards by which our beliefs should function. In particular, it reveals why we cannot help but value evidence and demand that propositions about the world logically cohere. These constraints apply equally to matters of religion. “Freedom of belief” (in anything but the legal sense) is a myth. We will see that we are no more free to believe whatever we want about God than we are free to mean whatever we want when using words like “poison” or “north” or “zero.”

This coherence seems to be a theme in this chapter, as he tries to explain everything in terms of rational rights and wrongs, by his definition:

Belief, in the epistemic sense—that is, belief that aims at representing our knowledge about the world—requires that we believe a given proposition to be true, not merely that we wish it were true…. Here we can see why Pascal’s wager, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, and other epistemological ponzi schemes won’t do. To believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief. There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question and my acceptance of it. In this way, we can see that religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other.

Unless I misunderstand him here (and that’s quite possible, as this stuff is way over my head) I have to say I agree with some of what he says here. God’s existence is itself the reason for my belief. But I have no idea what he means by “evidentiary in spirit.” I welcome enlightenment here from my readers!

It should be clear that if a person believes in God because he has had certain spiritual experiences, or because the Bible makes so much sense, or because he trusts the authority of the church, he is playing the same game of justification that we all play when claiming to know the most ordinary facts. This is probably a conclusion that many religious believers will want to resist; but resistance is not only futile but incoherent. There is simply no other logical space for our beliefs about the world to occupy.

Resistance to his opinion is incoherent?

Later in the chapter, it’s interesting that he quotes Hebrews 11:1, which I would quote to him:

“Faith as the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”

But then he says, of this passage:

Read in the right way [Harris’ way?—my comment] this passage seems to render faith entirely self-justifying: perhaps the very fact that one believes in something which has not yet come to pass (“things hoped for”) or for which one has no evidence (“things not seen”) constitutes evidence for its actuality (“assurance”). Let’s see how this works: I feel a certain, rather thrilling “conviction” that Nicole Kidman is in love with me. As we have never met, my feeling is my only evidence of her infatuation. I reason thus: my feelings suggest that Nicole and I must have a special, even metaphysical, connection—otherwise, how could I have this feeling in the first place? I decide to set up camp outside her house to make the necessary introductions; clearly this sort of faith is a tricky business.

Here Harris is equating belief with feeling. This is not the Christian definition of belief or faith, but something he has come up with himself.

Harris’ section on “Faith and Madness” might be what disturbed my sleep the most last night. A sample:

It takes a certain kind of person to believe what no one else believes. To be ruled by ideas for which you have no evidence (and which therefore cannot be justified in conversation with other human beings) is generally a sign that something is seriously wrong with your mind. Clearly, there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, sine most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths. This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.

So, he ends Chapter 2 by declaring that people of faith are mentally ill. Again I ask, who made Harris the expert on mental health? Who appointed him to set the standard? And perhaps more importantly, why are thousands of people excited about what he has to say?

When I couldn’t sleep last night, I read two other articles in the March 2007 issue of Touchstone, looking for something to calm my disturbed spirit. The first was by a favorite writer of mine, Thomas Howard. But he was writing a soul-searching article about approaching old age, learning detachment, caring less about the world’s pleasures and comforts… things that yes, I want and need to learn and have read much from the Orthodox Church Fathers about, but … somehow his words didn’t quench the disturbance created by Harris in my mind.

It was another article in the same issue, “Simply Lewis,” about C. S. Lewis’ classic book, Mere Christianity¸ that helped. Like these words, from a section of the article (by N. T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England) on “Faith and Truth”:

First, faith matters more than feelings; faithfulness to the high and hard standards of Christian behavior matters more than doing what you feel like at the time….Second, you can understand falsehood from the standpoint of truth but not the other way around, just as someone who knows light can understand darkness but not vice versa….

Perhaps Sam Harris only knows darkness, and therefore can’t understand the Light. And he defines that which he can’t understand as madness. Otherwise, how could he sleep at night?

And speaking of sleep… I’m going to find me a good Southern fiction novel to read tonight! And I promise my next post will be about something entirely different... I need a break from Harris! But please leave your comments!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The End of Faith, Chapter 1

Someone I love very much asked me to read the book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. It was on the NYT Best Sellers list a while back. And now Harris has written a follow-up book. Anyway, as I was remembering some of the things that were discussed at the women’s retreat this weekend, especially about whether or not genuine friendships could exist between people of different political or religious beliefs, I thought about this person who has recently shifted (again) from Christian to agnostic. At the retreat, I had made the statement that yes, I have friends that I don’t agree with on either of these accounts, and they are still dear friends that I love and enjoy being with. I stated that we are supposed to see people as God sees them, as people, made in His image. People to be loved. Period. Not as people to be converted or changed or “fixed.”

So, when this friend asked me to read The End of Faith and to engage in a “non-emotional, rational discussion” about it, I agreed. With one caveat: that they read a book of my choosing (Patmos: A Place of Healing For the Soul by Peter France.) and show me the same respect. They agreed. Game on. (I wrote about the Patmos book here.)

I thought I might do a little “book review in progress” from time to time here on my blog. I’m also writing personal letters to my friend as we discuss these books, but I won’t include the personal aspects here. I would love to hear any thoughts from my readers…. You can post a COMMENT at the end of this post, or send me an email at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com. If you send me an email, please let me know if you prefer that it remain private, otherwise I might quote from it in a future blog.

Chapter 1: Reason in Exile

Pretty soon into his first chapter, Harris states:

Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings…. While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers.

Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? Is it possible for me, as an Orthodox Christian, to hold my faith strongly and not judge others who belief differently? If I believe that my faith is the correct one (and the word Orthodox actually means right or straight belief) does that not automatically mean that I believe everyone else is wrong? Or that those I love who don’t believe as I do are missing the boat? And would this belief cause me to behave in certain ways towards those outside that boat? I think it did, and I did, when I was younger. I was probably, by Harris’ definition, a religious extremist.

Harris says that there are two types of religious persons, religious moderates and religious extremists. And then he begins to state his case:

One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.

He continues to argue that religious moderates are basically not being honest. And maybe they’re not. He calls them “failed fundamentalists.” Interesting observation. And maybe that’s the path I was on in the early years of my conversion to Orthodoxy. But then he says:

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance…. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally…. Religious moderation… closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities….moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world.

I don’t know what men and women he’s referring to… the early Christians, Christ’s disciples, “men who turned the world upside down?” Or the Church Fathers of the following centuries? Men like Ignatius of Antioch, Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great or Gregory the Theologian? These men’s lives were hardly “ravaged” nor were they ignorant about the world. Maybe Harris would consider me (and other Orthodox Christians) to be religious extremists. By his definitions, I am neither an extremist or moderate. And although his bibliography is impressive, I can’t really believe that he understands the heart of Orthodoxy. Harris begins his apologetic with man, whereas an Orthodox Christian would begin with God. Here’s an example:

…most of us have emotional and spiritual needs that are now addressed—however obliquely and at a terrible price—by mainstream religion. And these are needs that a mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise, will never fulfill. There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions—Jesus was born of a virgin; the Koran is the word of God—for us to do this.

Again, he begins with man. With man’s needs. Needs that he admits a secular understanding of our world will never fulfill. I’m interested to see where he goes with this… what he will posit as the fulfillment of those needs, if not God.

My apologetic begins with God. God reveals himself to those who seek Him. Whether or not he also reveals himself to those who seek to disprove him is something I have no knowledge of, so I can’t speak to that. (But Peter France speaks to it in his book, Patmos: A Place of Healing for the Soul, actually.)

Back to the religious moderates. Harris says that religious moderates “don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.” I can understand his point. If your reference for relating to others is sola scriptura, a theology limited to the written scriptures, then yes, it’s a high cost to pay. But relating to others based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and a growing relationship with the Son, Jesus Christ, and a life lived seeking the God the Holy Father, isn’t always going to be socially acceptable, either. But it can be a life filled with love for all mankind. I’m certainly not a good example of this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be…. The Saints we imitate and venerate were consumed with love for their fellow man, regardless of his race, religion, or politics.

The rest of Chapter 1 of Harris’ book deals mainly with the conflicts in Palestine, the Balkans, North Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the Caucasus, of which Harris says:

In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.

When he talks about conflicts, wars, genocide, and other horrible suffering caused by religious factions, he says that most Americans aren’t so different than Osama bin Laden, in that we “cherish the idea that certain fantastic propositions can be believed without evidence. Such heroic acts of credulity are thought not only acceptable but redeeming—even necessary.”

Scary accusation. But he spends most of the rest of the chapter quoting from the Koran. Not from Christian Scriptures.

And then he talks about spiritual experiences and psychic phenomena and the ability to “transform the character of our experience.” He states, near the end of his first chapter, that

Spirituality must be deeply rational… Even now we see the first stirrings among psychologists and neuroscientists of what may one day become a genuinely rational approach to these matters.

Reason. That’s where he’s headed next:

We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting….It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs.

Whew. I’m going to have to take a breather before reading Chapter 2, “The Nature of Belief.”

For now, I’ll close with a quote that my friend, Doug, uses as his email signature:

"And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music." -- Fredrich Nietsche

Call me crazy… can you hear the music, Sam?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Toe Story 2: Damn Straight

Viewer Advisory: Some images may be graphic in nature. If you are squeamish, you might want to skip this post! Today was my first post-op visit to Campbell Clinic. They cut off my beautiful cast, and no, I didn’t save it. I’ve got photos of all the original art work. Odorless photos. Anyway, that part was fairly painless. Except for when this yucky bandage was kind of stuck to some of the stiches.

Then they pulled out the stitches. A couple of ouch! Moments, but again, not too bad. Then the moment of truth. Dr. Murphy said the surgery appears to be successful. I looked at my toe and said, “damn straight!” The toe, that is. It used to turn under the second toe and now look at it. (Well, don’t worry about the color… my husband says it looks like a morgue photograph. Remember it’s been inside a cast for two weeks.)

Next they put on new bandages, separating my toes and wrapping the area where the stitches had been… where they cut the bunion out. Then they showed me the color options for the cast. Pink. Camouflage. Blue. Green. Flowers. You name it. I asked for white. White? They couldn’t believe I wanted white. I’m an artist, I said. And my friends are artists. I’ve got two coffee mugs full of colorful Sharpies at home just waiting for a fresh white canvas. So… here’s my fresh, white cast… in my new cast shoe, ‘cause now I can put some weight on that foot, but still have to use crutches or a walker.

Two more weeks in the new cast, so come on over and decorate it, folks! Tonight John and Gabby came by with a delicious roast chicken meal from Kerry… so I got Gabby to get the new canvas art started. Here she is working on her masterpiece. And here it is… I love the crosses, especially. A good reminder that God is taking care of me.

God and my friends. This morning when hubby and I got to Campbell Clinic for my 10:15 appointment, they told me the appointment had been rescheduled for Wednesday. They forgot to call me. I said that wouldn’t work for us, that I needed to see the doctor today, please. So they said come back at 12:45. (Doesn’t always work that way, but I’ve learned to ask for what I want and go from there.) Only problem was although hubby was off work from the VA Hospital today (Martin Luther King holiday) he had a conference call scheduled in the afternoon. And the round trip to the clinic had already taken an hour and a half of his time. So I called my friend Sue, who lives near the clinic, to see if she could bring me home after the afternoon appointment if he drove me out. Instead, she invited me to spend the rest of the morning at her house, and she would take me to the appointment and drive me home afterwards. Basically, she just gave up most of her day for me on the spur of the moment. She even made homemade soup for our lunch.

With so many of the conversations of the weekend women’s retreat on Friendship still on my mind, I thought about how blessed I am. Sue is a real friend. When I tried to thank her, she insisted the blessing was hers. I thought about this song. Yes. That's what frirends are for.

P. S. Thanks for the yummy chicken, Kerry!

So... nothing very literary in this post... probably because I'm multi-tasking... watching the women's quarter-finals in the Australian Open while I'm posting. Serena just lost in straight sets to Jancovik. Maybe I'd better start paying closer attention. It's a nice change from the football play-offs... and warmer!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Philia Has Embraced Agape

This will be short... I left the house for the first time in 10 days this weekend, and I'm worn out! So, here's the (brief) scoop:

At the annual women’s retreat hosted by the Women of St. John Orthodox Church in midtown Memphis this weekend, Fr. Paul O’Callahan gave several talks based somewhat on his book, The Feast of Friendship. He also divided us into “breakout groups” where we answered some thought-provoking questions, discussed them together, and touched on some important elements of friendship.

Hopefully we also enjoyed being together, as friends. I especially loved having my friend, Julia, from Little Rock, and her daughter, Anne Katherine, stay with us for the weekend. Here’s Julia, signing my cast. (The one that will be cut off tomorrow, when I get the stitches out. Yea! But then I get a new cast for a couple of more weeks.)

Anyway, I think we touched on some important things. And in a day and a half retreat, that’s a good start. But I also think we only skimmed the surface of a deep ocean of important truths about the feast that friendship can be. And if we want to dive deeper, we’ve got to be willing to risk being honest about some things that we struggle with. Loneliness. Feeling unappreciated and misunderstood. Loving people who are different from us, without wanting to change them. Creating an atmosphere where our friends can rest in the comfort of our unconditional love.

Today I re-read a few more parts of Fr. Paul’s book, and found a quote that kind of sums it up for me. He’s talking about “philia” (brotherly love) and “agape” (spiritual, Godly love):

We find that we share various values, perceptions and interests with a friend. This experience of mutuality causes us to be committed to the friend himself, and not just the things we share in common with him. Because of our commitment, we are devoted to the well-being of our friend in everything. We are ready to sacrifice of ourselves for the sake of our friend. At this point in our relationship, philia has embraced agape. The love of friendship is complete.

This type of friendship may be harder to develop because of the tendency to gravitate towards people who are like us. Who share our political views or child-raising techniques. Who see the world through the same prism. But isn’t it what we want most? To be loved, well, just because we are people?

I hope I can be this kind of friend to others. To see them, not as Christian or non-Christian, liberal or conservative, rich or poor, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, saint or sinner, but as my brother or sister pilgrim on this earth, made in God’s image.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Beside Ourselves

Growing up in Mississippi in the 50s and 60s, I was privy to lots of colloquialisms. Some from Lillie Bell, the dear black woman who helped raise me from birth until I was a teenager. And from grandmothers and great aunts from rural parts, especially. It wasn’t until recently that I began to consider the root of some of those terms. Like this one: “She was just beside herself.” Which usually meant a person was upset. Out of their mind with worry about something.

I found that very expression in an unexpected place this morning─a short book by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom called Meditations on a Theme. I’ve quoted from Met. Bloom’s work before. From one of his books on prayer. A physician and priest, he was Exarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Europe at his death in August of 2003. Anyway, I often turn to his writing when I am “beside myself” over something. Or in this case, when a dear friend is “beside herself” with worry about something really hard that has happened to her family. How surprised I was to find this very phrase used in Met. Anthony’s words:

We are encompassed on all sides by worries, concerns, fears and desires and so inwardly perturbed that we hardly ever live within ourselves─we live beside ourselves. We are so much in a state of befuddlement that it takes either acts of God or a deliberate discipline to come to our senses and begin that inward journey which will lead us through ourselves to God Himself…. We seldom perceive God’s mercy when it is expressed to us through illness, bereavement or loneliness, and yet how often it is the only way in which God can put an end to the inner flood and outer turmoil which carries us away like a flood! How often we do exclaim, “If only I had a short period of peace, if only something made me aware that life had greatness, that eternity exists!” and God sends us such moments when are brought up short by illness or accident; but instead of understanding that the hour of recollection, of withdrawal and renewal has come, we fight desperately to return as fast as possible to our former state, rejecting the gift concealed in that act of God which frightens us.

As I’m writing these words my friend just called to say her situation just improved and to thank me for praying. Thank God. Her troubles are far from over, but the immediate emergency is calmer. But we don’t always get a quick resolution to a big problem or hurtful situation. Sometimes God lets us stew for a while, giving us a different venue so that we can choose to turn inwards.

I’m thinking of the words in the parable of the prodigal son. After slogging around in the mud and misery of his own choosing for a while, he finally decides to return home. The words are “he came to himself.” While he was wallowing in the mud, he was beside himself.

I’m thinking now about my own self and how and why I often choose to live beside myself instead of within. I think one reason is because I don’t like the home I’m building in there. I prefer the one out here, where I can substitute quick fixes for the real thing. As I think back over the past twenty years or so of my life, I realize that the times I was most “at home” with my interior life were the times that I was praying more. Imagine that. It’s like prayer is the interior designer of our inner houses. The more we use her, the more desirable the interior space becomes.

As I spend more and more time in this chair, or in my bed, recovering from my foot surgery, I realize that God has given me yet another opportunity to work on those inner rooms. Losing the contract on the house we wanted to buy last week was another of God’s gifts. Another chance to focus on the beauty within.

So… in between my times of stillness, sitting here trying to go within, I had two wonderful visitors today. First, Mindy brought baby Nicholas (9 weeks old) to see me. She did her cast art while Nicholas and Oreo napped by the fire and I sipped the latte she brought me from Starbucks. I taught Nick to make some cool faces, like this one. Yep, he’s got potential. Mindy also brought us a(nother) home-cooked meal, so we’re still eating quite well here at Chez Cushman. Thanks, Mindy!

And speaking of eating well, Anna-Sarah brought us lunch today… a yummy Mediterranean tuna salad, fresh clementines (that she peeled for us, hard as that is!), yummy cheese and pita bread, and homemade lemon squares. We had such a delightful visit that I forgot to ask Anna-Sarah to do any cast art. We had so much fun looking at her pictures from a recent trip she and her husband made to Switzerland. Gorgeous.

In fact, while Anna-Sarah was still here, another friend called to tell me that Melinda Rainey Thompson was being interviewed on Book Talk on TV (from our local public library)… so I switched it on for part of the show. My friend said that Rainey reminded her of me…or the things she was saying about her book reminded her of my current direction with my writing. Rainey got started with a family newsletter that grew into a blog with a huge readership. So, when she queried an agent or publisher about publishing her first book, one of her selling points was the built-in readership she would be bringing with her. (An aside: I celebrated 5000 hits on my blog today, which I started five months ago. So, let me pause and say THANKS to my readers!)

Anyway, Rainey’s new book of essays, The Swag Life, sounds so good I ordered a copy online right away. (btw… SWAG stands for Southern Women Aging Gracefully.) She also teaches writing, so her approach is serious, literary style, even when her topic is light or even humorous. Can’t wait to read it!
And yes, I got some editing done on an essay this morning, which felt good. It’s looking like that fiction novel might be taking a back seat for a while. Sorry, Sweet Carolines. Maybe I’ll get back to you some day. Don’t give up on me. It’s just that I’ve got other stories to tell right now…..

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Feast of Friendship

Back in September, I wrote a post about friendship, “Risking Friendship, The Secret of Happiness,” here. In the same post I mentioned our church’s annual women’s retreat, which was scheduled for November, but had to be re-scheduled because of a death and funeral. Now it’s this weekend: Friday & Saturday, January 18 & 19, at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis.

Conversations with two dear friends last night and this morning have spurred me to post about this topic again.

First, about the retreat. The speaker is Father Paul O ‘Callahan from St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Wichita. (Here is he, with his family.) He’s the author of the book, The Feast of Friendship. I used his book as the primary source for one of the talks I gave at a women’s retreat in Austin about two years ago. Titles for his talks are:

“Eternal Communion: Friendship and the Meaning of Salvation”
“A Barren Field: Modern American Individualism”
“Real Friendship: What it Looks Like” and
“Soul Friend: The Role of Spiritual Father”

When I first read Father Paul’s book, I thought, “oh, my. I can’t believe this was written by a man. He’s so in touch with his feminine side!” (For those of you not familiar with Jungian psychology, that’s a good thing.) I’ve met Father Paul personally, when I visited Wichita a number of year ago, But I’ve never heard him speak, so I’m looking forward to the retreat. But not just to have my ears tickled by a good speaker. As I told someone on the phone today, I’m looking forward to what God has for all of us in the way of learning how much our salvation is wrapped up in one another… how much we need each other… and how to have healthy, salvific friendships. Some of us in this parish have known each other for 40 years. Other friendships are new. All are priceless.

In preparing for the retreat, I re-read several passages of Fr. Paul’s book today, and I’d like to share a few quotes here, and a few of my own reflections. From 3 sections of the book:

(1) The Achievement of Personhood

Love, freely given, manifests the essential relatedness of a person to others. Thus, the individual who cannot love fails to develop true personhood…. the one who loves fully becomes his own identity through communion with others….The achievement of human personhood therefore is unthinkable apart from the drive for communion. It is undeniable that relatedness is a fact of human existence from the moment of our conception. We are conceived in the fire of passionate relations between two people. We develop in the nurturing womb of our mother. We experience our relatedness first at her breast, and then with our father and siblings, relatives and neighbors. We find out soon enough that our existence has occurred in the nexus of particular communities, and then discover the place of those communities in the larger realm of the human race in the world. We venture into friendships, integrate into all kinds of associations, find lovers, marry, and beget children. Even the most distinctly biological aspects of our generation and socialization do not and cannot occur apart from personal relationships. When one becomes fully conscious, one recognizes the dimension of communion that is possible, may actually underlie, and is often manifest in such relationships. The highest and most fulfilling are those in which a genuine experience of communion between persons takes place in utter freedom: friendships and marriage.

I know there’s a lot in there. Read it again, if you have time. I’m big on the aspect of freedom that he talks about here, and in much greater detail later. We choose our friends and our spouses, but not our parents or our children. But then they become part of our “tribe” in a sense. Part of who we are as persons. Part of the realm in which our personhood develops. They’re not optional, if we want to develop into whole, mature persons.

(2) The Creativity of Friendship

Because we allow our friends access to the intimate spaces of our hearts, we place them in a position to deeply affect us…. They discern and seize upon our deepest spiritual aspirations and encourage us to strive more mightily to realize them than we could ever do alone…. They recognize our genuine gifts and talents, and embolden the humble expression of them….Fundamentally, genuine friends grant us access to the most creative dimensions of our souls by receiving us and reflecting us back to ourselves.

I have a friend that does this, and it is a beautiful and sacred gift. Without her love, I am sure I would never have believed in myself enough to paint an icon. Or write a book, or even an essay. Or speak at a women’s retreat. Or face down some of my demons. She teaches me how to be a friend, and hopefully, I can learn to be that to others.

(3) Issues and Problems in Friendships: Needs, Possessiveness, and Expectations

If perfect intimacy is to be attained and preserved in a friendship… certain basic principles must be honored. The first is the absolute necessity of maintaining distance in the relationship. We may imagine that the common dimension shared by friends exists in the delicate space in between them…numerous forms of over-identification can collapse it, such as possessiveness, inappropriate expectations….The freedom and autonomy of real persons are precisely the prerequisites of genuine friendship….one trusts the character of his friend and thus setting rules for his behavior is out of the question…. The development of highly specific sets of expectations among friends… at bottom… betrays a lack of trust. It reveals the desire to regulate and control the other…. True friends relish the distance between them as much as the communion that unites them. This is because they recognize that the distance between free, whole, autonomous persons is the essential precondition of their relatedness.

Okay, I could talk about this forever, but I’ll try to be brief. I have parents who told me what to do while I was growing up. And then some. But they were supposed to tell me what to do. They were my parents. Not my friends. I had teachers growing up, and even now, iconography instructors and writing instructors, who tell me what to do, although sometimes they only make suggestions, but they’re supposed to tell me what to do. They are my teachers. Not my friends. I have a spiritual father who only tells me what to do if I ask him to. Thank God. Sometimes I want him to be my friend. But I need him to be my father. It gets confusing at times. But I trust him. And he trusts me and never tries to control me. So I guess he’s also my friend.

I was part of a cult for seventeen years. We were taught to control each other’s behaviors. It wasn’t a healthy place to learn friendship. But some of us who survived and came into the Orthodox Church together in 1987 have been re-learning it together. Trying to figure out how to preserve that precious space that must exist between two Real Persons in order for them to become Real Friends.

I think Father Paul O’Callahan understands these things. I’m looking forward to his talks this weekend. And to spending time with my friends.

Speaking of friends. Two more came over today. First, my friend Nancy. The one I actually met at Starbucks about four years ago. She signed my cast “Starbucks Nancy” and cheered me up with this beautiful butterfly on my cast. And a latte.

Later my realtor, Linda, dropped by with yet another latte, and our earnest money on the house we lost because ours hasn’t sold yet. Not her fault. Or Saint Joseph’s. An Theli O Theos. As God wills.

Thank God for friends.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Finding My Voice

I read an essay by Brenda Pontiff in the (Charleston, South Carolina) January issue of skirt! Magazine yesterday called “Lucking Out.” (January is the “luck” issue.) It’s about a girl who was attacked in her apartment when she was 20 years old. Thankfully, she wasn’t harmed, physically, as he only wanted to rob her. But at one point, he had her pinned down on her bed with his finger down her throat and his knee in her crotch, threatening to kill her if she screamed. After being disappointed with the contents of her wallet, he ran out of her apartment. She tried to scream, but couldn’t find her voice.

I’ve always wondered what might happen if I was ever in similar circumstances. Could I shout loudly, or not? Thankfully, this ability hasn’t been tested in me, yet… other than one night during a dream. At least I think it was a dream. It was in 1995. I had been through a very dark time, spiritually, and was struggling with evil dreams. This particular night, I was in bed, asleep (I think) when suddenly I felt something or someone physically pulling me up out of my bed by the arm… up into the air above the bed. My husband was asleep next to me. I tried to scream, but no sound would come out of my voice. It was terrifying. Suddenly I woke up and felt myself dropping back down onto the bed, as though I had been suspended in the air. Fully awake, I got up and went to my icon corner and prayed. And cried. I was shaking. Perhaps in this situation it wouldn’t have helped to have been able to find my voice, because I was fighting against a spiritual enemy, rather than a physical one, but still….

I was watching "The Titanic" on TV the other day, and when it got to the part near the end when the heroine is waiting to be rescued and the men in the rescue boat are near her, calling out, she can’t scream for them to hear her. Just watching it, my throat constricted and I remembered that helpless feeling again. Of course I love that she swam over and got the whistle out of the dead man’s mouth and started blowing on it, and therefore was rescued. The writer could have had her scream out for help, but he didn’t. He had her lying there helpless, unable to find her voice.

Laura, the sixteen-year-old protagonist in The Girl From Charnelle, tries to scream when the married man who has taken her on a secret camping trip inflicts her with pain as he ravages her virginity. She is unable to make a sound, to find her voice. The book seems to be about that very thing… about Laura, and her mother, and her older sister, trying to find their voices in a small town in the Texas panhandle in the 50s and 60s. (Her mother just left the family one day, and the older sister ran away with an Air Force pilot and eloped at 18.)

Why is it that we are unable to speak when we are in danger? Does fear temporarily paralyze our vocal chords or something? Actually, one of my vocal chords is physically paralyzed (has been since 8th grade) … but that didn’t stop me from yelling out cues when I taught an aerobics class years ago, or yelling at my kids (unfortunately) … or singing at the top of my lungs at times.

I’m wondering if finding our voice during a crisis is akin to finding our voice as women, in general? A therapist once helped me come to grips with some addiction issues I was having. She helped me understand how my addictions could be related to something that happened to me in early childhood, when I was helpless. And again later, when I was in my twenties. It made so much sense to me, but when I shared these things with a male friend, he didn’t think it was such a big deal. It was like I was screaming for help and he couldn’t hear my voice.

Writing helps. Gloria, Laura’s older sister in The Girl From Charnelle, wrote letters home to her family from Europe, where her husband was deployed as an Air Force pilot. When she came back to Charnelle for her fist visit to her family, she told Laura that she made copies of the letters for herself, as a sort of journal. I love what she says about it:

“I love writing the letters. It’s not real, I guess, unless I write it down. And then the experience takes on a shape. It’s like I get to see my own mind.”

When I read this, I thought, yes. This is part of why I write. To give shape to my experiences. To see them as my mind sees them. To give them a voice. So I’m inspired to work on an essay today. Working title: “Finding My Voice.” ahhhh... the sound of ten fingers clicking....

Monday, January 14, 2008

One Hand Clapping

Last night I did some more reading in Anne Lamott’s book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Two of her essays really blessed me. One was about her teenage son, Sam. She writes about Sam a lot… maybe I’ll share some of that another time. Her essay, “One Hand Clapping,” is what really got my attention yesterday.

It’s about a woman in her church (just outside San Francisco) who had only a stump for one of her hands. Her mother had worked as a chemist for the military during WWII… helping develop chemical weapons. She was one of a number of children of these workers who were born with birth defects from their mothers’ exposure to the chemicals. But Lamotte tells the story about this courageous woman (who later lost a battle with breast cancer) who fought for the poor and other causes dear to her heart. She was limited in what she could do, physically, but not in the way she could touch people’s hearts.

The same day I read this essay, I watched an ad on TV during the football games, about a woman athlete who lost a leg. It showed her running with a prosthesis. She swung her hip out awkwardly as she ran. But she ran.

As I attempt to do more things for myself around the house, without putting any weight on my left foot, I’m learning lots of lessons. The body needs all its parts to function smoothly. When other parts are called on to pick up slack for a broken part, it hurts. My other foot hurts. My knees hurts. My hips hurt. My wrists hurt, from supporting my weight on the walker. My arthritis is flaring up big time.

Things I took for granted come at me in endless details. Pay a bill? No problem. Let’s see, the checkbook is in that room. The stamps are in there. The envelopes are in there. And I need to get on the computer (in there) to check on something first. All that for just one little job. Now I’m carrying a backpack around on my walker, taking stuff from room to room. I’ve never stayed inside my house for six straight days in my life. Before my surgery I was asking the doctor, “how soon can I drive?” Now I’m not a bit interested in driving. Just in figuring out how to get the milk and cereal to the table.

All this to say that limitations change your perspective on things. On how often the cat’s litter box has to be raked. Or how much it matters if the afghan is folded neatly on the couch. Or if clutter accumulates because it’s exhausting to move from room to room.

Sitting here looking at my cast, I read Katherine’s words again, “Be still and take care of you!”

Be still.

This morning I was still. If you call writing being still. I was still physically… but four pages of notes and outlines for a memoir came pouring out. Maybe the genesis of a book of essays with a related theme. Thankful for having two good hands to type these words with. Trying to imagine the sound of one hand clapping…. I can only hear the sound of one foot walking: thump, thump, slide; thump, thump, slide.

After a morning of (relative) stillness, several wonderful groups of visitors arrived. Sue and Sarah brought us lunch… and Sarah did this marvelous cast art creation. This rose is so awesome I’m not going to want the folks at Campbell Clinic to cut it off. Well….

Later Reem brought delicious chicken over for our dinner tonight (which we just ate and yum!) …and brought Sophie with her. Here’s Sophie (almost 5) doing her cast art… a pretty flower and her name… while Oreo and I watch. It’s so narcissistic having people sit at your feet and draw pictures on your cast while I take photos. Or in this case, Sarah took photos.

Around 5 pm Kathy came by for a glass of wine and a visit.
At 7 pm hubby arrived home with groceries. Yes. Now I know how old people feel, watching all the young people buzzying around them quickly. I can’t do anything quickly right now. Well, except type. Back to those essays!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ups and Downs

After such an “up” day on Friday, Saturday was really a downer. Although I woke up with NO PAIN in my foot at all (this was the good part), I decided to quit taking Percocet. But then it hit me. The cumulative affect of the Percocet all week… and I spent most of the day dealing with really unpleasant side affects. Not blogworthy. Just saying.

By evening I was “up” again, thanks in part to my friend (and nurse) Margaret, who gave good advice, to my sweet hubby who ran to the drug store for me and put up with me all day, a sweet visit from another Goddaughter, Julie, who brought chicken soup and visited… even while I was still nauseated. And then the surprise of the day: Dan and Lori O’Brien’s Greek Chicken and Orzo and wine (yes) … suddenly tasted good and made everything better.

More artwork on my cast (no photo right now) and just more tangible reminders of how loved I am. These dear friends from my church are just angels.

So, this morning I did what I do every Sunday morning if I don’t go to church. I drank coffee and read the New York Times. I really enjoy the NYT Magazine and Book Review, but today in the “Sunday Styles” section, there was this great article, “Take Me as I am, Whoever I Am,” by Terri Cheney. She’s got a book coming out in February, Manic: A Memoir. Terri is bipolar. And she writes about it with candor and humor and clarity. Can’t wait to read the book.

Terri’s “ups and downs” were the inspiration for this blog post… and also got me to working on notes for an essay about some of my own struggles. Or maybe a book of essays. I spent some time editing a piece I’m considering sending in for Dinty Moore’s critique session at the Creative Nonfiction Conference at Ole Miss in February… but then again I think I’ll wait ‘til closer to deadline and see if I come up with something that’s more in the memoir genre. We’ll see.

I’m still going “up and down” about writing nonfiction vs. fiction… so I enjoyed part of the morning continuing to read K. L. Cook’s The Girl from Charnelle. Yes, it’s fiction. But literary. And he makes you believe it could be true. It’s what good fiction can do. Here’s an excerpt… the protagonist, Laura, has gone with her family to visit “Aunt Velma” on Easter weekend, April, 1958. Backstory: Aunt Velma’s husband committed suicide.

Aunt Velma claimed that the church had saved her after Uncle Unser died, literally saved both her physical and spiritual lives, and she had devoted herself to volunteer work and to intensive study sessions with other members of the congregation, particularly those who’d lost spouses, parents, children, brothers, or sisters…. Laura was fascinated and often moved by Aunt Velma’s fervor. Regardless of whether or not you believed what she believed, it was clear, to Laura at least, that it had changed Aunt Velma for the better….It made her generous and forgiving, and sustained her as she grew old, lit her from within rather than turning her cynical and ossified, as Laura could easily see happening to someone else in Aunt Velma’s shoes. When your husband kills himself… well, no telling what could happen to you.

And here’s one more teaser… at the end of an eventful weekend, Cook frames the days’ events (through Laura’s voice) in prose that is almost lyrical:

It seemed as if the fall from the horse had shaken whatever was bad or festering out of her, that those few minutes of deadness had made way for this sense of pleasure she now felt. She smiled to think of what Aunt Velma would make of this….maybe that’s how people like Aunt Velma find themselves, through these odd connected moments, ripened with mystery, like beads on a string─leaving town, falling off a horse, brooding over the dead, eating until you’re stuffed─and poof! ─through some magical alchemy, you’re crazy for Jesus.

I’ll be curious to see how Cook has Laura (who is 16 when the book begins) deal with the affair she’s having with a married man… a friend of her father’s, actually. How he “frames” her actions in light of her mother’s desertion and the other events in the small Texas town in the 1950 and 60s. I’ll get back to you… won’t give the book a thumps up or down ‘til the end.

Meanwhile out in the den, (watching football with hubby this afternoon) one of our homeboys made good… Eli and the Giants just won their playoff against the Cowboys… but earlier we watched Peyton and the Colts lose… we were in school with Archie and Olivia, so it’s hard not to pull for his boys. I’m not really a football fan, but hubby did something to connect us to the Manning boys forever. November 17, 1969… the night Ole Miss beat the Big Orange… he proposed to me. And I said yes. Little did we imagine, that night, that two of our kids would one day to go the University of Tennessee.. and watch Peyton play. God, we’re old. And poof!... we’re crazy for Jesus. Just like Aunt Velma. We all have our ups and downs.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Plan B

Day 4 of foot surgery recovery: This afternoon I moved into the den and set up headquarters with my laptop and wireless keyboard and mouse... just in time for a flurry of afternoon visitors.














Claire and Deb showed up after a movie matinee outing, and added Pen and Palette and Oreo artwork to my cast, and a delightful distraction from foot pain with their visit.
















While they were here, Pamela and Hannah came and brought baby Peter...

But I'm writing backwards... so now I'll flashback to yesterday and this morning....

Yesterday our realtor called to say that the owners of the house we put a contingency contract on have another offer. It’s the really really yummy house in a great location and everything… but we haven’t sold our house and we really really don’t want to be the proud owners of two houses, so… we had to let it go.

Of course I’d been walking around in that house in my mind for three months… picking out new furniture, imagining myself writing a best-seller in the Virginia Wolf Room (a room of my own) and enjoying the front porch swing and…. Sigh.

So as friends got the news, the condolences started coming in. (And no, not one person has said "I told you so"... because we didnt' bury a statue of St. Joseph in the yard:-) Sometimes I don’t want to be encouraged, you know? I just want to be sad. To grieve the loss on my own terms. Especially while I’m lying in bed with my foot in a cast and throbbing with pain (when the Percocet wears off) and everything…

But somehow grace arrived with the news. A friend was here when I got the phone call, and that helped a lot. And it was my Goddaughter, Katherine’s 10th wedding anniversary and she came over to see me this morning. I was Maid of Honor in her wedding… and we blinked and now she has three children and it’s ten years later. Her house has been on the market longer than ours, as her family is wanting to make a change, too. She brought me a latte and wrote on my cast. Here: “Be still and take care of you!

I had been reading Anne Lamott’s book of essays, Plan B: Further Thougths on Faith. At one point she says, “You don’t always get what you want. You get what you get….life, and grace.”

So I’m trying to be open to Plan B. And to grace. A good friend emailed me saying that God has something more wonderful for me, and it might be something within. She knows I’m stirred up about my writing. So the For Sale sign comes out of the yard for a few months and the focus goes within.

Today is Mary Allison’s birthday. She would be 30. She’s my Goddaughter who was killed in 1998. The one who moved in with us ten years ago this week, actually. I wrote about her memorial service about in September. Just remembering her today and the gift she was to our family, and the lessons we learned when we lost her.

Working on an essay a little bit today but feeling sleepy from the meds, so I think Plan B will be to try to do what Katherine wrote on my cast: be still.

And read some more in The Girl from Charnelle my Christmas present from Stacy (well, I used the Barnes & Noble card she gave me to order it)…. I’ll relax and enjoy K. L. Cook’s writing for a while tomorrow….
Takes place in a south Texas town in the early 60s…. stay tuned for a review in a future blog….

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Toe Story


Scrubby went with us Tuesday morning, at 5 a.m. to Campbell Clinic’s Outpatient Surgery Center. She was a big hit with the doctors and nurses. Well, mainly with the nurses. She wore her mask and everything. She got to stay with me until they took me in for the surgery.

Thank God (and thanks to everyone for their prayers) I was ASLEEP and didn’t feel a thing. I woke up briefly and heard a saw or drill or something, and felt someone holding my leg, which was numb, so I went back to sleep. They started at 7 and were finished before 9 am. The doctor said everything went great, and indeed, my previously crooked big toe, which is peeking out the top of the cast, looks straighter. It has two pins inside (permanently) to hold it straight.

On the way home we picked up one of these Dry Pro thingies, so I don’t have to use a garbage bag on my cast to shower. And then a latte, of course.

Back at home I set up recovery camp in the guest room… since hubby is still sick (but was well enough to take me to surgery) and we’re kind of keeping different sleeping times right now…. It's not fair that he doesn't get to be sick by himself... I can't wait on him much now:-(
After the numbness wore off, the nausea set in. I won’t describe this part, but it was over by 8 pm, and thanks to my friends, Perky and Darcy, the pain has been manageable so far. I’m learning to use a walker… can even carry a cup of coffee from the kitchen to the guest room, balancing it on the front of the walker with my right hand as I scoot along.

Beth was leaving for Knoxville Tuesday afternoon, so she was first to autograph my cast.













Today Nancy came to bring catfood (which I forgot at the grocery) and then Madeleine came with a latte, so she autographed next.




















I've got a bowl of colorful
Sharpies waiting for visitors to add their creations!

In between naps and visitors (and homemade soups, thank you Anna-Sarah and Ellie!) I’ve been loving Haven Kimmel’s novel, The Solace of Leaving Early. After reading her two wonderful nonfiction memoirs, A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch, I thought the novel started slowly. But now I’m loving it. I find myself leaning one minute towards writing fiction and the next towards memoir as I devour these yummy authors. (Kimmel and Lamott right now.) Tomorrow I hope to put pen to paper again. Trying to think of my surgery recovery time as a writing retreat.

But tonight it’s hubby and me with our laptops in the den watching Ole Miss vs. Tennessee AND Memphis vs. ECU… Go Vols! Go Tigers! (yeah yeah yeah, I know we went to Ole Miss… but our money went to Tennessee with our kids....
okay... that's all for now... nothing very ethereal... just a thankful heart and hopes for happily-ever-after ending for this toe story.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Bananas Foster, Stories, Poems and Essays: YWG Kicks off 2008!

On Saturday I didn’t drive to Oxford for my monthly critique session with the Yoktapatawpha Writers Group. I drove to East Memphis. Patti hosted our group in her home… complete with lunch she prepared herself, and marinated flank steak and chicken for dinner. We brought side dishes for dinner. (More about them later.) This is Patti, with her new puppy, Buttercup.

And here’s the “morning group” (minus Sue and Doug) …. and the afternoon group (at left) ended up being the YWG Original Five: Patti, Doug, Herman, Tom and me.




First the critique sessions (before and after lunch). Terry and Sue could only stay for the morning, and Doug could only make it for the afternoon and evening, but we figured out a way to get everyone’s input on each writing sample that was submitted. On the two wonderful poems turned in by Sue and Doug. And the delightful essay by Terry. Patti shared some bits and pieces of the family stories she’s working on. Another chapter of Tom’s book. A couple of stories from Herman. And I got help with a creative nonfiction piece I’m working on.

Here’s Terry, aka “the slasher”…

Here’s how it works:

We submit our work (via email or the YWG web site) before the meeting, and everyone takes red pen in hand and makes suggestions as they read. At the meeting, one person is the moderator. Usually me. Because Doug says I like to be in charge. (You think?) The moderator just gets the critique session started with a few comments about the piece being critiqued. Everyone offers their feedback, on everything from content to punctuation, point of view to grammar. The author is supposed to remain quiet during this part and only respond at the end. We’re not very good at that, so we often respond to the criticism throughout the session.

Sometimes we rabbit trail. Like Saturday, when one of the essays stirred up a conversation about racism. Issues matter. How we treat them in our writing matters.

After each critique, we turn in our pages to the author and start over on another one. The author has to have thick skin and know that what we want is to help each other become better writers. But he/she also has to remember that it’s her/his work. Kind of like they say at a Twelve Steps meeting: “Take what works and leave the rest.”

I learn something every time. Not just from the critique of my own work, but from reading and listening to the comments on everyone’s writing. Thanks so much, Doug and Tom, for driving up from Tupelo and New Albany for the meeting. We’re looking forward to coming down to Tupelo in February, Doug!
Now. About the food. Two of my favorite side dishes for the dinner were:

Tom’s wife’s veggie casserole (I went back for seconds):

1 can French style beans, drained
1 can shoe peg corn
1 can water chestnuts, sliced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 can cream of celery soup
1 carton sour cream
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 roll Ritz crackers, crushed
1 stick melted butter, mix with crackers

Layer beans, corn, chestnuts
Sprinkle onion on top
Mix soup and sour cream - spread over onion layer
Sprinkle cheese over this and then crackers
Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees until brown.

And Herman’s Bananas Foster. Yes. I helped! (Well, I sliced the bananas and scooped the ice cream into the bowls.) It was amazing. Had three kinds of liqueurs plus rum. Yum. I loved smelling the butter and brown sugar caramelizing in the skillet. And watching the rum burst into flames. Putting the meal together in the kitchen at the end of a day of critiquing each other’s writing was so relaxing.
The spouses were invited to join us. To meet these people with whom we share so much of our creative endeavors. One spouse was able to come…. MINE! He wins the Best YWG Spouse Award, don’t you think? He and Tom discovered a bond… check out the “secret handshake” in the photo. Not saying what fraternity they were in. Not.

Lots of good wine and life-stories were shared. Here are some scenes in, or near, the kitchen…

Okay, guys… I’m heading to Campbell Clinic at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday (they moved the surgery up to 7:00 a.m.) so I don’t know when I’ll get back to my computer. I do know this: I'll be having one sip of Holy Water (all I'm allowed after midnight tonight) before I leave in the morning.

Beth will be driving back to Knoxville Tuesday afternoon for another semester of grad school in architecture. Oh, and Jon just called to say he’s off to Iraq on Wednesday night. (leaving from Savannah, Georgia) I’ll write more about that later. Just saying… for your prayers. Traveling mercies for Beth and Jon!