Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Soft Opening

Today is the last day of National Poetry Month, so I wrote one final poem to commemorate it. I was going to illustrate the poem with photographs of my blossoming peony bush…. But I decided to wait, at least until tomorrow. You’ll understand my reason when you read the poem. So, I’ll illustrate it with these beautiful ancient paintings instead.

And now, for the poem.

A Soft Opening

My peonies didn’t come out
For Pascha this year.
Well, one of them did—
The matriarch peeked through
Her dark green casing just enough to see,
Just enough to test the warmth of the sun
On her blossoming inner petals.

That’s where the nymphs live—
Those mischievous fairies
For whom the plant is called
Shame,
Or Bashfulness
In the Language of Flowers.

Named for Paeon—
Physician to the Gods on Mount Olympus—
Who was gifted with the flower by the
Mother of Apollo, but then
Turned into one himself by
Warring factions amongst the gods,
The men gods, I might add.

Her seeds flew across cultures to become
A national emblem in China
Where she’s known as the
Flower of Riches and Honor.
Then to Japan where her root was used
To treat convulsions in kampo—
A Japanese nod (yes) to Chinese medicine.

So this Bright Week I keep watching
For her blossoms to unfold,
But they keep waiting for the sun
To warm the air, to tease them
Into dancing—uninhibited—
In their birthday suits
In my front yard.

Maybe they’re camera-shy,
Afraid of what my lens might reveal
To the world of poets and bloggers
And voyeurs, like me and Annie Liebowitz,
Too eager to reveal the hidden beauty
Of our subjects to the lusty, waiting world.

Shame on you, Billy Ray,
Lying there with your baby girl
As Annie’s lens opens her budding
Maidenhood before the nymphs
Are ready for their coming out—
Before they are strong enough to
Bear the scrutiny of the watching world.

Shame on me, exposing the buds
Of my young peony bush too soon,
Impatient to see their beauty,
To smell their heady perfume
And to touch their tissue-soft
Petals before they are ready
For my embrace.

Maybe I’ll wait for their
Grand Opening,
But more than likely
I’ll be ready with my Lumix—
The aperture low—for a soft opening
Tomorrow, on May Day, in honor of Flora,
The Roman Goddess of flowers…
A convenient excuse
For my premature indulgence.

I’ve been reading reviews of my favorite poet’s latest book, Unmentionables. Here’s one, in a blog called “The Shelf Life.” If you scroll down to the end of the post, you can read my comment… where I disagree with the reviewer about Beth Ann’s poem, “First Warm Day in a College Town.”

REMINDER: Beth Ann will be signing and reading from her book at Burke’s Books in Cooper Young tomorrow night from 5-6:30 p.m. It’s the second month for the Cooper Young Neighborhood’s Cooper Young Night Out . Lots of restaurants, art galleries and shops will be open. I’ve got a table reserved at Tsunami’s for my friends and my daughter, who arrives home from her first year of grad school tomorrow night!

And yes, there will be photos from the evening… I’ll try to post them tomorrow night. Beth and I are flying to Denver early Friday morning to visit my son, Jason, for a few days, so I’ll be busy packing … if I can get my left brain to function in the euphoric trance that always follows Beth Ann’s readings! (Confused by the names? Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet. Beth (Elizabeth) Ann Cushman is my daughter. They are both amazing, talented, and beautiful, and I'm so excited that they will get to meet eachother tomorrrow night!)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Voices of Passion... and Reason

Susan May Warren , award-winning author of more than twenty books, and Rachel Hauck, multi-published author of romance and chick lit, have a blog called Book Therapy. It’s a place where writers can submit parts of their works-in-progress and get “therapy” for their writing… from Susan and Rachel, and from other members. I’ve been dabbling in it for a few weeks, and not long ago they ran a “contest.” They asked members to write a short piece telling who our voice of REASON and our voice of PASSION are in our work-in-progress.

So, today they announced that I was one of three winners, and they published my comments here: (scroll down a few paragraphs to the one that begins Susan C had a great point to accompany her example… )

I’ll even get a free copy of Susan’s upcoming book, Wiser Than Serpants . I love the way the internet connects complete strangers through common threads of interest…. Susan’s Mission: Russia series deals with issues like human trafficking in Russia. Her web site has a link to the International Justice Mission. The IJM was the beneficiary of the Art and Justice Show I was asked to participate in last spring. There were about six artists displaying their works, and I had several icons in the exhibit. The organizer, Terry Carter, suggested I have a place where visitors could light a candle in front of the icons and say a prayer for the victims of human slavery. I miss Terry and her husband, Mike, (that's Mike and Terry on the right end of the group picture) who taught art at Westminster Academy here in Memphis for many years. They moved away last summer to pursue their art work full time.

Back to voices of passion and reason. I love this story that a friend sent me via email today. It’s a great example of the voice of passion winning out over the voice of reason in the main “character,” an elderly gentleman. (I don’t know if it’s a true story or not. It's through the voice of a nurse.)

It was a busy morning, about 8:30, when an elderly gentleman in his 80'sarrived to have stitches removed from his thumb. He said he was in a hurry as he had an appointment at 9:00 am.

I took his vital signs and had him take a seat, knowing it would be overan hour before someone would be able to see him. I saw him looking athis watch and decided, since I was not busy with another patient, Iwould evaluate his wound. On exam, it was well healed, so I talked toone of the doctors, and got the needed supplies to remove his suturesand redress the wound.

While taking care of him, I asked him if he had another doctor's appointment this morning, as he was in such a hurry. The gentleman told me no, that he needed to go to the nursing home toeat breakfast with his wife. I inquired as to her health. He told me that she had been there for a while and that she was a victim of Alzheimer's Disease. As we talked, I asked if she would be upset ifhe was a bit late. He replied that she no longer knew who he was, that she had notrecognized him in five years now.

I was surprised, and asked him, "And you still go every morning, eventhough she doesn't know who you are?"

He smiled as he patted my hand and said, "She doesn't know me, but I still know who she is."

Another (true) story about passion trumping reason is the story of the Holy Martyrs Raphael, Nicholas and Irene, who are commemorated on Bright Tuesday in the Orthodox Church. (Today is Bright Tuesday.) All three were martyred by the Turks in 1453 on the Island of Lesbos. In June of 1960, the Saints started to appear both in dreams and in broad daylight and were seen by many pilgrims and they revealed who they were.

Miracles like this one, and of course the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, remind me why we call it the Passion of Christ.

Happy Bright Tuesday! Christ is Risen!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Christ is Risen!

Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen! Or as these M & M's say (in Arabic) Masiah Qam!
(I ordered them from http://www.mymms.com/... to give as Pascha gifts. You can get them in any colors personalized for any event.)



But on to more celestial things... the Pascha service at Saint John Saturdaynight/Sunday morning. (It began at 11 p.m. and ended about 1:30 a.m..... and then we feasted ... on all the goodies everyone brought in decorated baskets. Some of the baskets are on the solea in this picture... waiting to be blessed by the priest at then end of the service.) But I feasted on champagne and lamb soup.

I didn't take many photos in the dark... didn't want to use a flash and interrupt the service, and the dark photos aren't so good. But this one, up close, shows everyone coming up the steps of the church at the end of the procession.



And here's Father John Troy knocking on the doors of the church saying, "Lift up your gates, O Ye Princes... and the King of Glory shall enter in!" And a voice from inside the church says, "Who is the King of Glory?" And Father Troy says, "The Lord mighty in battle...." (click on the 4th video below for a live production!)
Here the priests wait for the people to finish filing back into the nave after the procession.
I took a few short videos so you can get a very brief look at what an Orthodox Pascha (Easter) service looks like.
The first one shows the church almost completely dark, even the vigil candles have been extinguished.
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Then Father John Troy starts singing "Come take light from light" and goes down the aisle lighting candles, and parishioners share the light with the person next to them. The dark church becomes light as we prepare for the procession.
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The procession begins inside, then goes out the front doors and around the building, down the street and back to the front steps.
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Stopping at the top of the steps, Father Troy knocks on the doors of the church....
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Once we're back inside, we sing a million versions (and languages) of Christ is Risen... and the clergy take turns leading the exclamation. Here's a couple of my favorites from Saturday night: Deacon Tim gives a try with Spanish... which comes out very Southern Boy Spanish... look at Father Don laughing behind him.
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And Deacon James, instead of trying three languages, stuck with the Greek, but got increasingly louder and more enthusiastic with each chant.
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Finally we got to my favorite Paschal hymn, "Shine, Shine, O New Jerusalem."
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Here's what the Great Entrance looks like... when the clergy and altar services process from the altar through the nave with the gifts of bread and wine.
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And finally, communion... the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Not just a symbol. Who would go through all of Great Lent and Holy Week for a symbol? Who would choose to fast and pray and engage in any kind of ascetic struggle for a symbol? The priest says, "With faith and the fear of God, come forth." Most of the time I don't have much of either of these... faith, or the fear of God. But Sunday morning at 1 a.m. I believed. And in a mystery, God's precious Body and Blood filled my heart, my soul, my veins. The light of Christ illumines all.
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These words from the Paschal homily of Saint John Chrysostom, which is read following the Gospel reading on Holy Pascha, are some of the most encourging words ever spoken from the pulpit:
Let no one weep for his sins, for forgiveness has shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior's death has set us free. He that was held prisoner by it has destroyed it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.... O Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the First-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Holy Saturday: Arise O Lord! and Making Lamb Soup

What a glorious day! Holy Saturday is the first and early announcement of the Resurrection... and typically the service when catechumens are baptized and/or Christmated. Father John Troy Christmated twelve new members this morning at Saint John in Memphis!
Here's Catilyn Manning with her sponsor, Meribeth Harvey. I'm sure Caitlyn will have some yummy things to say about the day on her blog.

My favorite part of the service is when my husband, Father Basil, cries out, "Arise, O Lord, and judge the earth!" and comes out of the altar and throws bay leaves and rose petals everywhere! It's sooooo joyous. The bay leaves and flowers represent our victory over sin and death. I love the way they smell together... sweet and tart. Like life.

Again, it takes a long time to download these vidoes, so I'll be short on words and long on videos. If you want to download any of these, I think you can RIGHT-CLICK on them and follow the directions. The choir, directed by Margaret Elliott, was AMAZING, as usual. Listen to these!!!

drat! I can't get the first one to download... maybe it's too long... it's when the twelve catechumens were processing to the front of the nave and everyone was singing. Oh, well...

The next one is when Father Basil comes out of the altar with the bay leaves and rose petals and begins singing "Arise O Lord and judge the earth!"
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The final one is when he goes up into the choir loft to throw bay leaves and rose petals at the choir and over the balcony. If you think this is joyful, wait until the Pascha service tonight!
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Julia and I met at the church kitchen at 4 to start the traditional Greek Lamb Soup. It's called Mayiritsa in Greek. Here's an article about it (but not the recipe we used.) And another one here, spelled Mayeritsa. I ordered the ground lamb ahead of time from the butcher at Schnuck's. First you brown it, then drain the fat and cover it with water and start simmering it.

Then you chop up lots of green onions and yellow onions and brown them in real butter. Near the end you stir in lots of chopped up parsley and cilantro. Then a bunch of dill. You add all this to the meat in the pot and simmer for an hour.



Then you put the pot in the refrigerator for a few hours (or a day or two ahead, if you prefer.) Meanwhile, you squeeze a bunch of lemons and mix the lemon juice with cornstarch in a jar and save it for later.



When we come back to the church for the Pascha service tonight (at 11 p.m.) we'll take the soup out of the refrigerator, skim off the fat, and slowly warm it during the service. At the last minute, we'll stir in the lemon juice and cornstarch mixture, as well as a dozen or so beaten eggs.

When Julia's father, Andy, was alive, I remember that all he wanted (at 2 a.m.!) on Pascha morning was a cup of lamb soup and a glass of champagne. He converted me to this practice several years before he died. Those Greeks know how to celebrate! I'll be thinking of Andy and Urania tonight as we crack our red eggs together and say, "Cristos Anesti! Alithos Anesti!" (Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen!) Or, in Arabic, "Masiah Qam!"

Friday, April 25, 2008

Holy Friday: Taking Down from the Cross and Lamentations

Holy Friday is truly the climax of the bright sadness that Orthodox Christians experience during Great Lent every year.









The children of the parish have helped the women decorate the funeral bier with fresh flowers.
The afternoon service, known as the "Taking Down From the Cross" of our Lord is celebrated at 3 p.m. at our parish here in Memphis.
The 7 p.m. service is known as "Lamentations." It's like a funeral service in many ways. It's sung before the Epitaphios by the priest and the congregation... a poetic dirge sung antiphonally by the choir and the congragation. The author of these Lamentations is said to be St. Romanos Melodos.
The music is haunting... once it gets into your soul, it never leaves. Rather than writing about it, I'm going to post several photographs and a few videos I took with my camera. Forgive the extremely amateur videography, but I hope that pictures, and music, will, in this case, speak louder than words.
If you've never been to an Orthodox Paschal service, they are amazing. We begin at 11 p.m. tonight (Saturday) night at St. John here in Memphis. The service is over around 1:30 a.m, and then we share a feast in the fellowship hall.

















You can actually hear the music if you click on these videos. The first one shows the clergy bowing before the bier, on which the epitaphios, which represents the Body of Christ, is placed.

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The next one shows some of the people coming forward to venerate the epitaphios.

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Every generation to the tomb comes... this next one has my favorite music of Holy Week...

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It takes too long to load these videos, so I'll skip a few and end with this one, the end of the Holy Friday Procession, as the people come up the steps, under the bier (which represents going under the Red Sea... back through the waters of baptism) and into the church. As I sit here at my computer downloading these, it's thundering and raining.... and I'm so thankful it waited until after the service! (although I agree with Erin that there's something fitting about rain and thunderstorms on Holy Friday....)

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This morning at Holy Saturday Liturgy (10 a.m.) we'll be Christmating twelve new members. I love the Holy Saturday service.... it's when my husband throws bay leaves all over the nave with such vigor and joy.... stay tuned for more pictures and videos!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dying Eggs on Holy Thursday & Welcome, Olivia Kate Autrey!

Today is Holy Thursday. Urania taught me to dye eggs on Holy Thursday. This is our first Holy Week without her—she’s my friend who died in October—so all of us at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis are missing her greatly.

I was thrilled when her daughter Julia emailed me from New York and asked if she could come over on Holy Thursday to dye eggs together. But first, a few links for those who want to read more about this tradition:

Here’s a blog post about why Orthodox Christians dye eggs red for Easter.

Link to dying eggs with onion skins is here. I might try that next year!
More information about traditions about Easter eggs is here.
One story about Mary Magdalen and the red eggs is here.
And another one here .


Okay, here’s Julia reading her mother’s instructions.

First we put the eggs in lukewarm water for about 20 minutes. This lets air bubbles out and prevents cracking. After 20 minutes, you pour this water out and start with fresh water for the dying process. I’ve done it both ways, and truly, fewer eggs crack this way. (Today we only cracked 3 out of 48 eggs!)



While the eggs are soaking, you mix Rit dye, “Scarlet” red, with a small amount of water and then pour it through a coffee filter into a container.

Your pour this dye mixture into the pot with the fresh water and bring it to a boil. Boil for about 12 minutes, then remove the eggs to paper towels to dry.






Once they are cool enough to handle, “polish” them with olive oil and put them in the refrigerator until Pascha night.




In some Greek Orthodox Churches, the priest gives out these eggs to the parishioners at the end of the service. At our church, most parishioners include some eggs in their baskets of food they bring for the Paschal feast.

The tradition is for two people to each hold an egg and “crack” them together… the one whose eggs does not crack wins. More about this game is here.

We’ve had a rainy Holy Thursday here in Memphis, but it’s turned out beautiful at the end of the day.

These clematis on our gate are in full bloom, as are these beautiful azaleas.



My peonies still haven’t bloomed, but I’m hoping for some blossoms by Sunday. Signs of spring are increasing as we move towards Pascha.

Watch for another post on Saturday afternoon… Julia and I will be making the traditional Greek lamb soup together. Yum!

Breaking News! Congratulations to my Goddaughter, Stacy Autrey, in Nashville… who gave birth to Olivia Kate this afternoon! 7 lbs 4 oz. We can’t wait to meet her!

Here's a picture Stacy and Jared just sent to my cell phone. Isn't she beautiful! Aunt Susan loves you, Olivia Kate!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Thoughts... from Poets & Writers and Real Simple Magazine


Well, it’s out there. I sent my book proposal to a literary agent in New York City today! And suddenly I feel…

Vulnerable. . .
Old. . . and
Exhilarated. . .

All at once. Like this woman riding a bicycle, in the May issue of Real Simple Magazine. I love the quote (it’s RS’s “Thought” for the month) from one of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle:

The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.

The woman looks like she’s riding down the candy-colored streets at Seaside… but she’s too eccentric for the folks there. So maybe she’s on the east coast somewhere. I’ve been staring at this picture for a while. It’s a kind of reality check. Like writing a memoir. As I finished the chapter outline for the book, I thought about L’Engle’s words again… that maybe I’m not losing all the other ages I’ve been. And unlike that cliché that Bruce Williamson made popular back in the 80s—It’s never too late to have a happy childhood—I’m thinking, it’s never too late to make peace with your unhappy childhood…and to be a fully realized adult.

Two articles in the new Poets & Writers spoke to me about my writing. The first is Stephen Corey, editor of the Georgia Review (which has rejected several of my fiction pieces, but I haven't sent them any essays yet) and author of nine collections of poetry. Here’s his take on the work he sees and the work he’d like to see submitted to the literary journal he edits:

Well, more people are sending out and publishing what they now call… “creative nonfiction.” In the mid-1980s we received perhaps two to three hundred essays annually, but now that count has increased at least fourfold—except that most of the pieces we receive are not essays anymore, but autobiographical narratives and reminiscences that read more like sentimental journal entries than thoughtful and rigorous considerations of experience. Everyone has experiences; we as writers must make something of them, in both language and idea.

That’s what the best memoirists do… writers like Anne Lamott, Haven Kimmel, Joan Didion, Mary Karr and others. As I read these amazing stories, sometimes I look at my life and wonder if it’s interesting enough. Corey’s words about making something of our experiences pretty much define the job of the creative nonfiction writer.

The next article in Poets & Writers that caught my eye was “First,” the Practical Writer column. Amy Rosenberg writes about Melissa Delbridge’s memoir, Family Bible. The first thing I noticed (with great hopefulness!) is that the author is 55 years old and this is her debut collection of essays about growing up in Tuscaloosa. Yea! Maybe I’m not too old! But then I read the article, and again, like Karr and the other memoirists I admire so much, her life is full of craziness that makes for good story fodder. But she goes beyond just recounting the crazies. As Rosenberg says in the article:

In presenting individuals who are indeed incestuous, slow-witted, fanatically religious, and all the rest, Delbridge insists on understanding, pushing herself, both as a writer and as a character in her own tale, until she finds compassion—even for Mary’s deranged husband or her own transgressive stepfather.

And as Delbridge puts it:

I’m taking characters and people who are familiar to anyone who has read Southern fiction or lived in the South, and I’m twisting them around to show the real people underneath, people with complicated inner lives.

Now that’s what I’m talking about. And trying to do with my own writing. My two writing critique groups and a couple of “early readers” are helping me try to find that compassion and paint those images with multiple dimensions, reminding me that no one is all good or all bad, and yes, all of us have “complicated inner lives.”

Another helpful thing in Rosenberg’s article is her section about structure. One of my early readers expressed concern that the time frame of some of my chapters overlap, which he thinks might be confusing for the reader. But as I follow a theme throughout the book, I’m also thinking about letting each chapter stand on its own, as a complete essay. As Rosenberg says:

... the publishing industry has been so frenzied for memoir over the past decade that the category has become a stale one, its examples too often feeling contrived or trite, or just leaving the reader cold. Delbridge rises above the label, refusing to impose an artificial structure on her tale and instead stringing together a series of essays, each capable of standing alone. The result is a personal history in which the silences between—and within—chapters leave much to the imagination and enrich the words that appear.

So, once I get past anxieties over the mechanics of the book, I’m kept awake at night worrying about how it will be received. (Presumptuous anxiety, since it hasn’t even been accepted by an agent, much less a publisher.) As I seek to finding healing for myself and others in telling the truth with compassion, Delbridge’s words are helpful:

I’ve tried to write about people, even those I feel wronged me, with understanding and in a spirit of forgiveness.... But with honesty as well. I don’t worry so much about anyone not liking what I have to say. What kind of relationship that’s worth having requires holding back your truth?

I welcome my readers’ thoughts, either privately to my email box (sjcushman@gmail.com) or join the online discussion here, by leaving a comment. If you don’t know how to leave a comment but would like to, just click on comment below and follow the instructions... it's free to create an account and only takes a few minutes. Or, you can just send me an email and ask me to publish it as a comment. I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Tinderbox

I had every intention of getting up at 7 a.m. today. It’s Holy Monday for Orthodox Christians, so I wanted to up the ante a bit during these final days before Pascha (Easter) by working more diligently, talking less, fasting more, and turning my thoughts toward the Cross. High aspirations for this lowly sinner, but important ones. So, I set my alarm clock for 7 (instead of my usual 7:30) but I forgot to turn it on. I had told my husband my plan, so he did bring me my first cup of coffee at 7, but I didn’t touch it until 8. Usually my snooze alarm goes off every 9 minutes (weird, but true) and by the second or third time I’m up. Did I mention I’m not a morning person?

Anyway, what happened between 7 and 8 am explains why I couldn’t get up. I had too much to dream. Then came the dawn. And it was gone, gone gone. I wasn’t ready to face the light. I had too much to dream last night.

If those words sound familiar, you’re old like me. The Electric Prunes sang them in 1967. If you really want to go there, here’s a video. Not of the band, but just a guy dancing his socks off to this song. (Just click on the arrow to play.)


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Anyway, I got up and wrote down the dream to email it to my friend who helps me with dream work. And then I went to my icon corner to pray. After reading the life of the saint featured in the 2008 Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar, I read the quote for the day. This one's by one of my favorite saints, Isaac the Syrian. It’s about suffering. And the cross.
My husband had placed the palm branch from yesterday's Palm Sunday procession there. It's green, verdent, alive. I looked up on our wall of icons and saw the crosses my children had made from palm branches over the years, and thought about how easily the branches could be bent, and shaped into the little crosses, when they were new. But once they died, they dried out. So now they look like crosses of straw, easily breakable. And so I resolved, again, to let God shape me, bend me, mold me, before it’s too late. Before I’m too brittle, too breakable.

Maybe the words from Bridegroom Orthros last night helped.
Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed are those whom He finds watchful.
Waiting. Ready. Like the five maidens who had oil for their lamps. And the sinful woman in tears who anoints his feet. I want to be ready. But I know I need to be sober. To suffer a little. Like not taking off any edges, but taking my sorrow straight, like Iris Dement sings. All this talk about suffering always scares me. Again with the taking up of the cross and all that. Which is why Saint Isaac’s words helped this morning:

Behold, for years and generations the way of God has been made smooth through the Cross and by death. The way of God is a daily Cross. The Cross is the gate of mysteries.

The gate of mysteries. I want to go there. I’ve known a lot of people who thought the gate of mysteries was marijuana. Or other “mind-enhancing” drugs. But now I’m thinking that God didn’t leave anything out when he made our minds and they work just fine, so long as we don’t numb them. And yes, lot of artists and writers have been drug addicts or alcoholics. But I doubt the alcohol helped their craft. It probably just helped them make it through the pain of creating, if they were wounded, broken people. And of course we all are… but maybe the artists and poets and writers are even more broken. More fragile.

This last week of April is also the last week of National Poetry Month, so here’s another offering … one I’m penning as I write this post, so don’t expect anything very polished.


The Tinderbox

Like the moth, I dance
Too close to the flame,
Loving the heat, like the burn
Of good whiskey.

My tinderbox full
To overflowing with
Brittle memories, dry bones
Waiting for something to quench

The thirst that seems to never end
And can’t be sated with wine
Or even Tequila, as the worm
At the bottom of the bottle knows.

If I water the twigs with my tears
Will they come back to life,
To the Tree, to the Cross
And be free from the fire?

Or do they need more
To replenish the years of the
Drought, of my flight from
The Light to the mirage.

Maybe I need the oil of Unction
If I can but wait until Holy Wednesday—
For the relief of every passion
For the healing of soul and body.

Two more days with only my tears
To stave off the fire, but wait—
What’s that I feel?
The tears of Holy Mary

Mingling with mine until
They fill my cup and saturate
The contents of my
Tinderbox.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Fan of Beth Ann

I’m a fan. And this is a fan. One that Beth Ann autographed, along with her new book, Unmentionables, at Off Square Books in Oxford on Friday night. She giggled as she handed it to me, saying, "Look--fans for my fans! Aren't they cute?"











I met with some of my fellow writers from the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group at our monthly critique session in Oxford on Friday. We usually meet on Saturdays, but we’re all fans of Beth Ann Fennelly, so we changed our meeting to Friday. And she did not disappoint.

When Beth Ann “reads” her poems like she did last night, it’s much more than a “reading.” It’s a performance. She takes you there… into those “unmentionable” places that she dares to go with her amazing poetry. (sorry the photo is fuzzy, I was several rows back, holding my camera in the air over my head!)

Like this one, that she read to us, her eager students, last June at the Yoknapatwpha Writing Workshop. Before it was published. She joked with us then that she might lose her job if it ever got published. I won’t quote the entire poem because, well, because I want you to buy her book. If you’re in Memphis, you can buy it at Burke’s Books, and hear her read and get an autographed copy on May 1. So, here’s the teaser, a few chosen lines from her poem, “First Warm Day in a College Town.”

Today is the day the first bare-chested
runners appear, coursing down College Hill
as I drive to campus to teach, hard

not to stare because it’s only February 15,
and though I now live in the South,
I spent my girlhood in frigid Illinois

….

so now it’s hard not to see these taut colts
as my reward, these yearlings testing the pasture,
hard as they come toward my Nissan

not to turn my head as they pound past,
hard not to angle the mirror
to watch them cruise down my shoulder,….

Want to read more? See you at Burke’s Books on May 1, between 5 and 6:30 p.m., or, of course you can order an autographed copy of the book from them online here.

Last night when Beth Ann opened with this poem, she looked over our heads out into the filled to over-flowing room at Off Square Books and said, “Oh, good evening Chancellor.” The room filled with laughter as she blushed like a school girl caught passing notes in class.

So, what’s the big to-do about Beth Ann Fennelly? As this article in the Oxford Town entertainment newpaper from this week says, she’s winner of the 2002 Kenyon Review Prize and the GLAC New Writers Award for “Open House” in 2002… and the 2997 Texas Review Breakthrough award for an earlier chapbook, “A Different Kind of Hunger.” And a Pushcart Prize winner, listed three times in The Best American Poetry Series. She even read her poetry at the Library of Congress at the invitation of the U.S. Poet Laureate!

All that’s big stuff, but it’s her soul that draws me. As she says, of “Unmentionables,”

These poems investigate the mystery of human relationships—between lovers, family members, individuals and society, ourselves and our perception of ourselves.

The book includes this great poem she wrote about the art of Berte Morisot, after touring the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I was especially interested in this, since I’m both an artist and a writer. Fennelly says, of this experience:

While working on this poem, I was able to explore the decisions a female artist makes when balancing fulfillment in one’s personal life versus fulfillment in art.

Want to read it? You know what to do. (Buy the book!) Preferably at an independent book store. But if you must, you can order it here.

The poetry reading was especially yummy at the end of a day of critiquing with my writing group buddies. Tom submitted the next chapter of the novel he’s writing. Doug submitted a short fiction piece he wrote as an assignment for a class recently. Herman shared the essay he wrote that Rivers Jordan actually read during a pod cast recently, “Southern Intrusions,” which was really good.

With fear and trembling I exposed the Prologue and first chapter of Dressing the Part to these folks, who treated it with tenderness, thankfully. It’s almost ready to send in with the book proposal, so I really appreciate the fine-tuning from my fellow writers. We missed Patti, who couldn’t come this weekend. But it was very interesting to get feedback from three guys on my book, since the target audience is mainly women.

At the end of our critique session, just for fun, and because it’s National Poetry Month, several of us shared poems we’d written. Herman’s was amazing. It’s about New Orleans. I’m going there in a few weeks, and it made me hunger and thirst for its sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

Okay, I will unabashedly end with the words of encouragement that Beth Ann wrote inside my copy of Unmentionables. I’m very humbled by her kindness and I’m really too embarrassed to type the words for you, so I hope you can read them in the picture.

Inspirational? I’m spending the rest of this gorgeous Saturday afternoon inside editing the book proposal. Thanks, Beth Ann, Doug, Herman and Tom!