Monday, June 30, 2008

Keeping the Reader Safe

The day before I drove to Nashville to meet my new “grand Goddaughter” (my Goddaughter’s daughter) Olivia Kate Autrey, my Memphis writers group held its monthly critique session. Hang on—there really is a thread here. Two of us in the critique group are writing memoirs. An issue that continues to surface is one of how much description to give to scenes that involve pain, suffering, and abuse. One of the writers is “ghost-writing” a memoir for a friend who suffered greatly (still does) with cerebral palsy. The childhood scenes, often filled with humiliation and social isolation, on top of physical pain, must be crafted with enough realism to make the reader embrace the person’s suffering. This is true, I might add, whether the character is real or fiction, and whether the suffering is physical, emotional or mental. One member of the group expressed concern that some of the scenes in my book might be too “jarring.” She talked about the concept of making the reader “feel safe,” so that a level of revelation is established in the beginning, and each scene involving pain or abuse doesn’t suddenly feel like a “speed bump,” that interrupts the flow of the story.

So, after meeting Olivia Kate and visiting with Stacy and Jared (that's them with Olivia Kate, left) for a couple of hours in Nashville Saturday, I drove on down to Murfressboro, where the baptism would be, and checked into a hotel to spend an evening working on the memoir. First I carefully read all my critique group buddies’ comments they had written on the chapter of my memoir they had critiqued the previous day. Really helpful stuff… much of which I incorporated into the chapter as I revised it.

Then I finished the final chapters of Delaune Michel’s latest novel, The Safety of Secrets, to see how she wrote the difficult scene which exposed “the secret” shared by her two main characters—a terrible experience they shared when they were ten years old. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it yet. But I will say this: she didn’t pull any punches in describing the scene, so that the reader was there, feeling the impact and understanding its implication for these girls as they grew up and pursued acting careers in LA.

Next I re-read the section in Mary Karr’s amazing memoir, The Liar’s Club, where she describes, very explicitly, and very slowly, her own loss of innocence to a man she thought she should be able to trust—her babysitter. (This was only one of several different scenes of this nature in Karr’s book.) Like Michel’s book, Karr’s was truthful without being sensational. I cried several times while reading this book, and couldn’t stop turning the pages hoping for some light at the end of the tunnel—for healing.

In both of these books, I felt “safe” as a reader, and I didn’t find the painful scenes “jarring”… they seemed appropriate to the lives of the characters. Closing the books, I sat quietly for a while, imagining other books, other characters who had suffered, and considered how the authors had written their suffering. The characters of Flannery O’Connor and Chekhov came to mind first. Would their writing be as compelling if they didn’t show their characters’ flawed humanity with such candor? Would the redemption, or sometimes the tragic loss without a hopeful ending, be as real?

And then my mind went to hagiography. It’s the written lives of the saints, but not simply a report. As Orthodox Wikipedia says:

Hagiography is unlike other forms of biography in that it does not necessarily attempt to give a full, historical account of the life of an individual saint. Rather, the purpose of hagiography is soteriological—that is, the life of the saint is written so that it might have a salvific effect on those who encounter it.

I think that hagiography was an early form of creative nonfiction, because it doesn’t try to give all the journalistic details that a biography might, but rather the details that are crucial to telling the story. And it uses the techniques of a literary novel to bring that story to life. If the saint lived a life of debauchery, for whatever reason, like the sixth century prostitute, St. Mary of Egypt, telling her story with enough important details for us to identify with her fallen humanness so that we care about her, and see our own brokenness in her life is important. This is her icon (left) on the iconostasis at Saint Elizabeth Church. She's nearly naked because she had been living in the desert for years. The iconographer could have painted her image fully clothed (a few have) and maybe the viewer would feel "safer," but.... well, you can read the complete, official story of her life, as recorded by Saint Sophronious, Patriarch of Jerusalem, here .


Notice how, at one point when the priest Zosimos asks Mary to tell him her “story,” she hesitates, but he encourages her to continue:

"I was suddenly filled with a desire to go, Abba, to have more lovers who could satisfy my passion. I told you, Abba Zosima, not to force me to tell you of my disgrace. God is my witness, I am afraid of defiling you and the very air with my words."

Zosima, weeping, replied to her: "Speak on for God's sake, mother, speak and do not break the thread of such an edifying tale."

“Do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.” Why was Father Zosimos wanting Mary to share the details of the darkness of her life? Why wasn’t it enough for her just to say, “I was a prostitute.” Would the reader feel more “safe” with those words? Zosimos doesn’t think so—he asks her not to “break the thread” of the story. Sadly, thousands of women have been prostitutes, but understanding the how and why of their brokenness is what draws you to them as fellow human beings, and makes you care.

Still sitting quietly in my hotel room, I thought about the stories of the martyrs that I’ve read. Again, the hagiographers don’t pull punches, as they describe the unimaginable tortures that they suffered. Does the reader feel “unsafe” in the middle of the life of a saint when suddenly words describing body parts being cut off and other such horrific details appear on the page? Now I’m rethinking this whole concept of keeping the reader safe.

So, on Sunday morning I arrive at Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr Antiochian Orthodox Church for Olivia Kate’s baptism. The priest is Father John Oliver. (That's Father John, right, with Olivia Kate and her Godparents, Shelley Armstrong and Jon Autrey.) Midway during the baptism, there’s a “break” during which time the newly baptized are changing into dry clothes for the rest of the ceremony. During this time, one of the readers read the lives of the patron saints of those who were being baptized. One was Saint Katherine the Great, who is the patron saint of Olivia Kate. And one was actually Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr, who is also the parish’s saint. (That's an icon of Saint Elizabeth, left, with Jared, Stacy, Olivia Kate and Jon at the end of the service. Stacy is giving out Jordan almonds.) I listened to these lives, and later to Father John’s homily on the death of Saint Elizabeth, not only for spiritual edification, but as a “reader” might listen. And I asked myself why the hagiographers included the details about how Elizabeth was blindfolded before she was led to the edge of the mine shaft where she would plunge to her death… and why Father John told us about the tear that leaked from behind her blindfold as she asked the guard whether it was a clear night… and how, just before the guard hit her with the butt of his rifle, she said these words of Christ’s on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Did he really need to tell us that the guards then heard the women (there were two of them) singing from the depths of the mine shaft, still alive, undoubtedly in great pain, fear and suffering, but still praising God? Did he need to tell us how they threw grenades down into the shaft on top of the women? Tears filled my eyes during his homily and chills ran up my arms. I was there, at the bottom of that mine shaft. Did I feel safe? Was it important for me to feel safe? Did this tale of horrific human injustice break the thread of the beautiful baptismal ceremony that we were participating in?

A few minutes later, the newly baptized ones (one woman and her two young daughters, and Olivia Kate with her Godparents) came back into the nave and gathered in front of Father John so that the service could continue. They were all dressed in white. As we sang, “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ,” I thought not only about the white garments they had put on, but how they would also, as all of us do, put on Christ’s sufferings, to one degree of another.

And in fact, in Father John’s homily, he talked about how our daily choices to “die to self” are in fact, our martyrdom. Most of us will not suffer the kind of martyrdom that Saint Elizabeth did. Nor will we experience the extreme change that Mary of Egypt went through. But we need their stories, just like we need their icons, as written and visual images of men and women who overcame their brokenness, their abuse, their torture, their isolation, and rose up out of it to be healed and restored to the image that had been lost. For me, the brilliance of the restoration is commensurate with the darkness of the fall. I want to see and read the full story. I don’t want the Readers Digest version, or the G-rated version. Father Zosimos didn’t want either of those versions of the life of Saint Mary of Egypt, and it was because of his insistence that we have the salvific story preserved for us by Saint Sophronious.

As always, I welcome my readers’ comments, either by clicking on “Comments” at the end of the post, or by sending me an email to sjcushman@gmail.com, and please let me know if I have your permission to publish your email comments here.

And now, a few more pictures from the baptism:


First, this is the gown that Stacy made for Olivia Kate....



by cutting the up baptismal dress I had made for Stacy's baptism six years ago! (That's us, in 2002, at Stacy's baptism at St. John here in Memphis.)




She took the dress, cut the bodice for Olivia Kate's dress from it, and then attacahed this precious bib for the collar. And get this, she saved the extra fabric so if she has a baby boy some day, she can add sleeves to the baptismal gown and use it for him. So, eventually, all of her children could wear the same fabric as she wore at her own baptism. (Did I mention that Stacy is an extremely creative and spiritual woman?)


This is me with Stacy and Olivia Kate and Olivia Kate's Godmother, Shelley Armstrong, just before the baptism. Two sets of Godmothers and Goddaughters together. (okay, yes, I'm getting mushy now, but I can't help it!)








And here's some more of Stacy's creativity at work... the baptism cake, which she made and Jared (yes) helped decorate.

Some close up shots during the baptism ceremony, of Father John annointing Olivia Kate with Holy Chrism (oil) ... it's a small temple, with no solea (raised area up front) so it's pretty easy to get up close with the camera.








The tonsuring wasn't too difficult, since Olivia Kate hasn't quite lost all her baby hair! Uncle Jon looks on protectively, as Stacy and Jared just smile helplessly in the background.









Here's one of Olivia Kate, fresh from the font, being dried off. She barely even cried.







I don't know if she's used to being fed after her baths at home, but she sure did get hungry shortly after her emersion! You can't realy see it in this picture, but she was really going after her fist. Hmmmm brings back memories of someone else who was rather attached to those fingers for quite a few years! (sorry, Jared, I couldn't resist!)





Now here's the Godfather, doing a great job juggling that baptismal candle and baby Olivia Kate at the same time! (Jon is the perpetual athlete.)

Here's another one in front of the iconostasis, at the end of the "receiving line," when Olivia Kate decided she had had enough!





Aunt Alex and Uncle Shane celebrate with Olivia Kate just before lunch.





And then the family gathered for a group shot, back in the nave (below).










Okay, here's the parting shot, back to Saturday at our first meeting in Nashville:


Aunt Susan loves you, Olivia Kate.
May God grant you many years!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Health and Fashion Watch in the Stroke Belt

My husband—Dr. William Cushman—graduated from medical school in 1974. After a residency in Internal Medicine, he embarked on a career in academic medicine, with a special focus on hypertension and preventive medicine. He’s also been an avid runner most of his life, starting with cross-country and track in high school. There are two threads to this story, so hang in there while I try to follow them with some degree of clarity!

I have no idea how many articles he’s published in medical journals over the years, but I do know that those journals have included the top scientific publications like The New England Journal of Medicine (most recent NEJM article is here) and JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) as well as many articles in the publications of ASH (American Society of Hypertension.) That's him, speaking to a group of physicians in China last year.

So, you can imagine his amusement when my mother called (about twenty years ago) to congratulate him for being quoted… in Reader’s Digest! Her pride in “my son-in-law, the doctor” hit an all-time high with his name in print, speaking a few words about high blood pressure . . . in Reader’s Digest. It was something she could show her friends. She made kaboodles of photocopies of the piece and mailed it to friends and family all over the country. My husband smiled and thanked her, humbly. Good thing they were talking over the phone so she couldn’t see him roll his eyes.

So, yesterday afternoon when I saw an article which quoted him in the New York Times (yes!) the scene was a harrowing déjà vu of the twenty-year-old event. "You're in the New York Times?" I asked with excessive enthusiasm. Yes, I've become my mother. And I don’t even have to make photocopies for my friends, I just publish it on my blog for all the world to see!

The thing is, I’m a writer and a follower of the arts and all the “latest” from New York, so this was, well, it was like Reader’s Digest was to my mom. My husband just laughed at my reaction. Of course I did ask him if they quoted him correctly and all that, as the media sometimes (cough cough) doesn’t get things right. He said it was actually okay, so if you’re interested in learning about “Drug Resistant High Blood Pressure on the Rise,” now you know where non-medical folks can read it. The main thing is that they’ve discovered some factors that are really resistant to treatment with meds: advanced age, weight gain, a diet high in sodium, sleep apnea and chronic kidney disease. So… here’s the paragraph that mentions my husband:

“Living in the Southeast, a region long recognized as the ‘stroke belt’ of the United States, is also a risk factor for blacks and whites, though researchers are not sure why. An author of the new paper, Dr. William C. Cushman, chief of preventive medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Memphis, said he suspected factors like inactivity, obesity and diets high in salt and fat.”

I think I’ve heard him mention these things once or twice in our thirty-eight years of marriage …. hmmmm ... and yes, I’ve admired his discipline as he continues to be a runner.

But I’ve been frustrated by my own attempts to get back into exercise (and lose some of the weight I've gained!) since my foot surgery in January, although I’ve been given the go-ahead by my surgeon. Thing is, the arthritis in the ankles and knees and feet really hurts, and sometimes causes swelling. And yes, I flow in and out of those risk groups mentioned above (inactivity, obesity, and diets high in salt and fat) although I’m blessed with great genes, where lipids are concerned.

But after reading the article about hypertension, I followed a link to another article (yes in the New York Times) “Fit Not Frail." As I get older and the body hurts more and gets flabbier day by day, it was providential that the NYT articles arrived the same week I decided to give Pilates a try. Of course I’d heard about it for years, but I had the impression it was just too difficult for me (which it might be…. the story isn’t over yet.)

So, first I read about the history of Pilates, here.

And then about “Power Pilates,” here.

And finally, about a local instructor, Marion Weaver, and her studio, The Pilates Place, here.

Marion was recommended by a friend who’s been working out with her for eleven years, so I decided to give it a try. Tuesday was my first day.

“Grow tall!” and “use your powerhouse!” were commands I would hear over and over as Marion led me through the various exercises and stretches during my first private lesson. A few of them hurt my knees and one of my ankles, but I was pleasantly surprised that I could actually do most of them. And Marion showed me how to make adjustments on some of the moves, and skip others until I'm strong enough, hopefully down the road a bit.

Here's a video about Pilates that you might enjoy.

video

Returning for my second lesson yesterday, Marion listened to my assessment of my body’s response to the first lesson and made a few more adjustments. An hour later, I was actually sweating and beginning to believe I actually do have a “powerhouse” somewhere, deep, deep, deep, beneath my belly button. Learning to use that core, breath properly, and control all the body parts that are supposed to be working at any given point during an exercise is quite a challenge. I’ll return for my third session on Monday and I’m actually looking forward to it. I'm going to try to do some of the mat exercises at home between now and then. If I can remember how!

And (you'll be glad to know) there will be NO “before” pictures here. I’m trying to focus on my “insides”… although it’s still difficult not to criticize my “outsides” when I can see them in the mirror three feet in front of me as I put my body through its paces. So of course, what I wear matters. Off I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods yesterday morning for two new sets of workout clothes. I taught aerobics for about ten years, in the 80s and early 90s, which I’ll be writing about in chapter 11 of my memoir, (Dressing the Part: What I Wore for Love) … working title for the chapter is “Spandex and Leg Warmers.” That’s me, in the black tights and dark blue leotard, with the other instructors at Phidippides Sports in Jackson, back in the 80s. My dad, who owned the store (and ran marathons and trained runners) also sold all those cute aerobics outfits in his retail store, which was attached to the aerobics studio. And I guarantee you, most of the women who took our classes also dressed the part!

The other day I read where tennis star and fashion icon Maria Sharapova decided to wear shorts to Wimbledon this year. It was all over the news. I love to watch tennis, but I always notice what the girls are wearing, and the companies making the athletic clothes know it.

If this sounds really shallow, consider this: Where would Nike and Adidas and all those other companies be today if I was the only woman (or man) who believed that image matters. It’s not just about how we look to others, you know? It’s about how we feel about ourselves (and actually, how comfortable we are) while we’re trying to make our outsides match our insides.

Reality check: my insides are fifty-seven years old, not thirty-something, so my outsides won’t ever look, or feel, like they did when I was teaching aerobics in my thirties. That’s probably a good thing, actually, because today, when I look at the woman in the mirror at the Pilates studio, I see someone who is beginning to care more about her health than her looks. But I am also beginning to believe that she is beautiful, just the way she is. Maybe I'll believe it when I'm sixty.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

We Don't Have to Live Great Lives

Michael writes for 4-5 hours every day. Five days a week. He’s the newest member of our Yoknapatawpha writers group that meets in Oxford once a month. He wrote the first draft of a novel this past year and is now beginning revisions. He also works out every day. His self-discipline inspires me. So I began the week like this:

Monday: two hours reading and research, three hours writing and revising, and one phone call to a Pilates instructor to set up my first private session, which is today.

Tuesday: Pilates session is at 11:30, so I had planned to spend the morning writing. But that was before I opened the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday. So, now it’s 9:30 and I’ve already spent two hours of my morning between the covers…. of what many consider to be the best craft magazine in the business.

I’ve just poured my third cup of coffee and floated over to my computer to post on my blog before heading out to the Pilates studio. Hope I have time to get it done. Here goes.

In every issue of P&W I always turn first to “The Literary Life” column. This month it’s called “The Art of Reading Andre Dubus,” by Joshua Bodwell. The subtitle is “We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives.”

I’m hooked already. As I continue to read best-selling memoirs, it’s easy to become discouraged that my life isn’t interesting enough (which is only partly true) or I’m not famous enough (which is totally true) … but I’m reminded again and again that it’s about the craft itself. So I read on…

Oh, and I forgot to mention the other reason I was drawn to this article… it’s about Andre Dubus… the uncle of Delaune Michel, the author I met in Jackson, and again in Memphis, at two of her readings/signings for her new book, The Safety of Secrets, which I am really enjoying. Delaune had mentioned being from a literary family, but I had never heard of Andre Dubus, or his son, Andres Dubus III, who wrote House of Sand and Fog. (Both to my shame.) The senior Dubus is known for his short stories, with comparisons to Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. But it’s Bodwell’s descriptions of Dubus’ style that captivated me:

“… hallmarks of Dubus’ work: tenderness, hurt, courage, redemption…. His work was not easy; the stories were fraught with hard moments of loneliness, heartache, violenc,e adultery, rape, murder, and abortion. ‘I think honest writers write about what bothers them,’ Dubus once said of his choice of subject matter.”

I can tell it’s going to be hard to limit my quotes from this article, so please please please, writing buddies, read it yourself, here.

But I can’t refrain from mentioning a few more things about Dubus… who chose short stories over longer fiction, for the most part, because he loved compressing the action and had an incredible talent for it. But at the same time, as Bodwell tells us, “Yet even as he whittled his stories down to their cores, Dubus infused them with both psychological breadth and emotional immediacy….His stories search deeper into the human soul than many writers dare reach.”

He points to Dubus’ short novel, Voices from the Moon, where he “balances the themes and preoccupations that define his oeuvre—religion, guilt, compassion, sex, spirituality, tenderness, acceptance, violence, and morality—and he does it from the shifting viewpoints of a father, son, mother, daughter, husband, wife and lover…. Near the end of the story, Richie’s long-suffering mother… explains that she likes her co-workers because they don’t have any ‘delusions’ about life. ‘We don’t have to live great lives,’ she says, ‘we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.’”

That was one of Dubus’ fiction characters speaking… but I took her words to heart as I unfold the lives of my non-fiction characters on the pages of my memoir. And Bodwell reminds us that “The best of his work leaves us feeling uneasy and vulnerable from the shock of recognition—nervous that this man not only knows our secrets, but that he might understand them better than we do…. His stories offer what only great art can: They provide counsel for the heart.”

I know I put this quote in my blog within the past week or so, but I can’t help repeating it here, because Bodwell’s description of Dubus reminds me so much of these words of Leo Tolstoy:

Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows to people those secrets which are common to all.

That’s exactly what Dubus’ niece, Delaune Michel, does in her book, The Safety of Secrets, which I’m about half way through now and loving it more and more.

So, as I continue to find the right mix of reading and writing, I’m also encouraged by the words of Janet Silver, editor-at-large for Nan A. Talese’s imprint at Doubleday, in the fourth in a series of articles in Poets & Writers called, “Agents & Editors,” when she says:

“I find that the best writers, the most ambitious writers, are the greatest readers….”

And I’m also encouraged by her words to beginning authors who are submitting their work to agents for the fist time (like me):

“The one thing that every aspiring novelist and story writers should know is that it’s really about personal taste…. I tend to like character-driven fiction by writers who are sort of pushing their own ambition and their own vision.”

I think this could apply to non-fiction as well… and I’m hoping there’s an agent out there somewhere who will be excited to see me pushing my own vision.

And now for a not-so-smooth transition into the other topic I wanted to blog about today… celebrating who we are, at whatever stage in our lives we find ourselves…. I started thinking about this last week when I received a high school graduation announcement from my cousin, Joshua, who lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia. Josh’s grandmother was my dear, dear Aunt Barbara Jo, (my father's sister) who died of cancer three years ago. His father, Tommy, is one of my five first cousins. (I’ve got a fairly small family for a Southern girl.) So, when I received the announcement, I was thrilled to see Josh’s picture (I hadn’t seen him in three years) and to read that he’s planning to study music and conducting in college and grad school. He already looks like a conductor, doesn’t he? Congratulations to Josh and all graduates everywhere who are pursuing their dreams….

I’ve always been a sucker for “Fame,” …. And for some reason the song, “I Sing the Body Electric,” came to mind as I thought about how exciting it would be to be young and embarking on a career in the arts…. So I looked up the lyrics to the song and guess what? They’re based on a poem by Walt Whitman. I love how connected the arts are…. But once I found videos of the musical numbers in “Fame,” I was glued to my computer (late yesterday afternoon, after writing for three hours) …. Watching scene after scene.

Here’s the one from the graduation scene in the movie, where they do “The Body Electric,” From there, you can find lots of others if you’re a groupie like me.

So, for all you graduates leaving home for the first time, and college and grad school grads going out into the grown-up world for the first time, this one’s for you: – Irene Cara singing, “Out Here on My Own.”

And my advice to grads: Try to hit it over the fence, but remember the words of Andre Dubus' character: "We don't have to have great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we've got."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

More of My People

Nikki Hardin's (publisher of skirt! Magazine) Morning Muse from last Friday included a link to a poster site called "Advice to Sink In Slowly" . I downloaded one of the posters (right) because it reminded me of why I need other people—not only “feedback” (as the poster says) from my writing critique buddies, but also just the human connection.

Like the human connection we made with our supper club, which met at our house Friday night. It was our last meeting while Hannah and Matthew are still in town (they’re moving next month) which made it even more special… and my daughter, Beth, joined us., since she's living at home this summer, doing an internship with an architectural firm.

We missed Ethan, who had a conflict… and, well, we ate his leftover steak tonight. Sorry, Ethan.

And I cropped Matthew out of the only picture I got of him because his mouth was full, and I think he would prefer I don’t publish a picture of him with his mouth full on my blog. Right, Matthew?

Okay, so there are no pictures of me at dinner club, which is probably a good thing because I ate way too much and probably looked as full as I felt all night.

First, it was the yummy Big Fire pinot gris that Hannah and Matthew brought…. Especially this one—check out the cool label.

And the excerpt from a poem by Rupert Brooke on the bottom of the label was perfect… although we couldn't see the "white fire of moonlight" here in midtown with the tall houses and trees. My friend, Herman, saw it, from a canoe on his lake down in Hernando, Mississippi last night!









We didn't have moonlight but boy did we have food. First, really large ribeyes on the grill. I feel sleepy just typing the words.












Caitlyn brought garlic mashed potatoes with lots of real butter,
and Hannah made homemade baby biscuits (not their real name but I don’t remember) and Claire made homemade Crème Brûlée and by nine o'clock we were all approaching serious food comas! (But it was worth it!)





And there was the interesting incident of the flying steak knife... which landed point down in our kitchen floor on its way to the sink and just stood straight up.

(okay... it was funnier last night, as things usually are after a few glasses of wine!)
I was warmed just by having my house full of people I love, and as I often do, I thought about Rodney Atkins' song, "These Are My People."

I thought about it again as I got up this morning and drove to Oxford for my monthly writers critique group meeting and was reminded again why we need people… and this time, specifically feedback. Two of us in the group are writing and revising chapters of the books we’re writing, and others are working on shorter pieces. I’m always amazed at the tenderness with which my fellow writers’ suggestions are offered with this group. I think everyone agrees that we’re cheering for each other to hit it over the fence! We really missed our fearless leader, Doug, who started the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group last summer and has never missed a meeting until today! Oh, and also Tom... sorry you couldn't make it, guys!

And we always end the day up on the balcony of City Grocery with a round of drinks and relaxed conversation as we watch the sun begin its descent and the locals stroll around the square greeting friends in the warm, down-home way that happens in small towns all over the South.

Ya’ll come back now, you hear?

We’ll be back in July!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What's Your Dream?

One of my favorite “last lines” from a movie is from Pretty Woman (btw, that's my favorite dress that Julia Roberts wore in the movie!) … it’s actually repeated from an early scene in the movie, where the “happy man” (played by Abdul Salaam El Razzac ) is walking along the street, shouting out to anyone who will listen:

Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Everybody comes here; this is Hollywood, land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don’t; but keep on dreamin’—this is Hollywood. Always time to dream, so keep on dreamin’.

I was reminded of how big people’s dreams are by two things this week:

First, at the book reading and signing by Delaune Michel on Monday night at Davis Kidd Bookstore. Delaune, a native of Louisiana, was an actor in LA for a while (she lives in New York now and is concentrating on writing her third novel and raising two children!) so she brings the experience of chasing her dream to her book, The Safety of Secrets, (watch a great interview with Delaune here) which is about two young actresses in LA. Delaune told us (at the reading Monday night) that living in LA is tough on writers… that the lifestyle there is so superficial and competitive, but also everyone’s into everyone else’ business all the time. Whereas, in New York, you can pursue your “dream” of acting or writing or whatever, and people around you just treat you like a human being, for the most part. Delaune said she got it out of her system—acting, that is—and is enjoying writing and motherhood. I guess you could say she’s living her dream.

The second thing that brought this dream thing to mind was watching “America’s Got Talent” last night. Of course it’s always painful to watch the people who have no talent (but think they do) being humiliated publically… but the personal interviews always inspire me… and the thousands of people who all seem to have a dream of performing on stage in front of people. I get that.

So when 32-year-old insurance salesman Neil Boyd brought down the house with his amazing opera performance, I sat on the couch in my den at home and wept. Especially when he paid tribute to his mother and received the accolades with such humility. He reminded me that you can have a dream to perform your art without being all caught up in yourself. As Madeleine L’Engle said, “we serve the art.”

When I was young I wanted to act. From the time in third grade when I didn’t get to be the princess but ended up being the witch in our school play, to my special moment in the spotlight when I shared the stage with my brother in our high school’s production of “Our Town,” (left) to the hilarious days of theme parties where a bunch of us dressed up as our favorite stars and sang (or pantomimed) our hearts out for each other. But those dreams have passed, and now I know that what I really want to do is write. Well, that’s what I’m doing, actually, so I guess I’m living my dream. But, even with four published essays, my dream won’t really be fulfilled until I see my name in print on the cover of a book.

So, whether or not you agree with Oscar Wilde, who said “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” you have to love Leo Tolstoy’s words:

Art is a microscope which the artists fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows to people those secrets which are common to all.

Which is why we love Arlo and Janis, right? And song lyrics that sound like they were written just for us? And novels that take us into the hearts and souls of characters and places we either identify with or long for. And personal memoirs that make us realize that we are not alone in whatever experiences—good or bad—we are given in this life.

So, I’m listening to the voice of the “happy man” saying, “welcome to Hollywood—what’s your dream?” and I’m imagining that question being asked me by my best friend or my daughter and I know the answer. Jere Hoar said it at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford a few weeks ago:

“Try to hit the ball over the fence—you won’t, very often, but you might, sometimes!”

My dream is to hit the ball over the fence with my writing. I want to make it sing like Neil Boyd did last night.

When I was a little girl, my favorite movie was South Pacific. One of my favorite songs was “Happy Talk.” Watch a video of the song here.
It’s pretty simple, really: if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna’ have a dream come true?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Holy Spirit Day: The Church goes GREEN

Today is Holy Spirit Day—the day after the Feast of Pentecost. He is the Life Creating Spirit, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. He is One of the Holy Trinity, the One that Christ promised to send when he ascended to Heaven (as we celebrated on the Feast of Ascension, on June 5.) This is the icon of the Feast of Pentecost in the nave at St. John (right).

During the season of Pascha (the time from Pascha to Pentecost) we don’t pray the “O Heavenly King” prayer in the Orthodox Church, because we’re remembering the time when Jesus was still with his disciples and the others on earth. While he was with them, they didn’t yet need the presence of the Holy Spirit as a Helper. But once he ascended to Heaven to be with the Father, they needed the Third Person of the Trinity to abide with them forever. To comfort them.

We need the Holy Spirit in our lives, too. So, yesterday morning at the great Feast of Pentecost (at my parish here in Memphis, St. John Orthodox Church) and again last night at “Kneeling Vespers,” we prayed the prayer that hasn’t been part of our services since Pascha:

O Heavenly King, O Comforter,
The Spirit of Truth,
Who art in all places and fillest all things;
The treasury of good things and giver of life,
Come and abide in us,
Cleanse us from every stain
And save our souls, O Good One.

We haven’t knelt during services since before Pascha, either, so kneeling vespers re-instituted this practice, which we will return to now, in “normal time.” I say normal time because we are no longer in the Great Fast or the Great Feast, but in a season between the major fasts and feasts. Oh, sure, we’ll have the Fast and Feast of the Apostles the last week of June this year. And the Fast and Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God in August. But these are relatively short periods outside “normal time.” I love the rhythm and balance that the Orthodox calendar brings to our lives.

We decorated the nave of our temple with greenery for Pentecost, because green is the color of renewal, of new birth, of life.

Our clergy wore green robes (the ones who have green robes) and the altar and icon stands were adorned with green cloths.

As I breathed in the scent of the live greenery and watched the sun’s rays hitting the plants, the icons, and the embroidered robes of the clergy, I was struck, again, by how organic the Church is. It’s always been GREEN. We bake holy bread from the fruit of the earth and offer it back to Christ, and it becomes the Body and Blood of our Lord in a mystery. We take organic materials like wood and pigments and eggs and we turn them into icons to adorn our temples and our homes to remind us that God became Man to redeem us. We take beeswax and make candles and light them in front of the icons to remind us that the Light of Christ illumines us. (Read a short and wonderful piece by St. Nicolai Velmirovich about why we light candles here .)

Father Justin Patterson writes about one of his experiences with Pentecost while visiting Russia in his blog:

The Feast of Pentecost remains one of the most beloved feasts in Orthodox Christian piety and experience. I’ll never forget my “Pentecostal” experience in Russia. As I walked into the church for the Pentecost Kneeling Vespers on Sunday afternoon, the smell of freshly cut greenery overwhelmed my senses. I waded through cut grass that was at least a foot deep, spread out on the floor of the nave. Along the sides of the walls, dozens of small trees had been brought into the church, in full blossom. Life was in the air! Together, we Orthodox believers—crammed into that little church, were entering into the reality of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.


So, Happy Holy Spirit Day! As I begin a new work week, with “to do” lists that include mundane things like paying bills and running errands and the creative work of writing and revising my memoir-in-progress, I’m thankful for the comfort and presence of the Third Person of the Trinity. I know I will forget Him over and over, and I’ll even sin against Him before the sun sets today, but He will not forget me. And because He is the Spirit of Truth, He will help me seek truth and write truth as I work.

O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth…. Come and abide in us.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Remembering

One of the three basic human things from which our writing springs, according to poet, author and professor of literature, Beth Ann Fennelly, is REMEMBERING. During the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop at Ole Miss last weekend (was it just last weekend?—so much has happened this week!) she was teaching us about the source of our creativity, when she introduced us to these three wells and encouraged us to return to them again and again. The memory I wrote during the workshop was about my mother. But today I’m remembering something else. I’m remembering my wedding day and my honeymoon. Because yesterday was our thirty-eighth anniversary!

And because I’m writing the first draft of Chapter 5 of my memoir: “The Flower Child Bride.”

God, we were young. I was barely nineteen, and my husband was twenty-one. My eight bridesmaids ranged in age from 15 to 18. (And they wore dotted swiss bell-bottom pants suits… it was 1970, remember?)

But today I’m remembering our honeymoon dinner at Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi, Mississippi…

I thought about it last night, during our anniversary dinner at Roustica, a restaurant just around the corner from our house here in midtown Memphis.

We had a table by the window, so we could watch the sky outside go from sun-lit clouds to dusky blue-grey to deep blue as the evening fell. We toasted with champagne, indulged in (really good) Alaskan halibut and scallops, and finished the meal off with (for me) Crème Brule with a true Southern twist—sorghum! (Just for the record, I prefer the original flavor better, but it was fun trying something new.)

[Oh—and for those fashion-conscious gals who are paying attention, that’s another modal dress from New Orleans… a black one just like the purple one I fell in love with in that cute little boutique in the Quarter. That fabric is addictive!]

And if you've never been to Roustica, one of the delights is the interior decor, much of which was hand-painted by local artists. For many years it was "Marena's" .... this was our first time to try it since it came under new ownership. Hats off to Chef Kevin!

Okay, cut to earlier in the day now, when I arrived home from Jackson to these gorgeous roses on my kitchen table. The vase was a gift from our dear departed friend, Urania, about two years ago. Her husband of 59 years, Andy, had given it to her on their first anniversary, and had faithfully filled it with roses for 59 years. When she gave it to us, she “encouraged” my husband to follow suit. This is the second (or third?) year running that he’s kept up the tradition.

And oh—the card he gave me yesterday is priceless. Here’s the front cover. I LOVE the cowboy boots in the Mustang!
When you open it (don’t you just love these musical cards?) you hear Tim McGraw singing this. (Click on "this" for a great music video.)
My husband has come a long way from his lifelong exclusive love of rock and roll to a fairly tolerant appreciation of country music, which is, of course, my love.

If all this mushy stuff is making you think, “Oh, no—she isn’t just writing a sappy memoir full of happy events that no one else cares about, is she?”

Not to worry. I’m only up to 1970 (The Prologue and Chapters 1-4 cover the 50s and 60s) but every chapter is going to be full of details that keep bubbling up from those wells Beth Ann has me tapping—remembering, desiring, and fearing—hugely important emotions to be in touch with as I continue the work at hand. Dressing the Part: What I Wore for Love will be more than a fashion or political statement of the turbulent decades that are unfolding between its covers. It will be a peak inside the world of a wounded little girl’s life-long struggle to dress the part—the parts—that would be cast for me by others… and later, the parts that I would choose for myself.

Today I choose these parts: I choose to be wife to my husband, mother to my children, Godmother to my Godchildren, friend to those gracious and forgiving enough to have me, and writer of icons, essays, and books. So as I sit working on that fifth chapter (with a midnight deadline to have a draft emailed to my writing group in Oxford for our next meeting!) I’m wearing the third pair of slacks I tried on from my closet today, because the first two made me feel fat, like slacks will do when they are too tight. I can’t work if I don’t feel good about my clothes. But I’m hoping that by the time all eighteen chapters are written, I’ll be healed. Or at least further along the path. At the same time, I’m trying to remember the words of Flannery O’Connor that I chose for the top of my blog:

"Don't think I write for purgation. I write because I write well.... You have got to learn to paint with words."

Yes, I lived it, but now I’ve got to, as Scott said last weekend “get up above it and spin a good yarn”…. My task is to “break the experiential shorthand, go back to those moments, and choose words that are true.”

With God as my helper, here I go.