Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holiday Culture Clashes: The Post-Christmas Blues

On Monday—just three days after Christmas—a dear friend and fellow member at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis posted the following comment on Facebook:

“put away all of the Christmas decorations...trying to temper the post Christmas blues....”

Her post elicited a long stream of comments. Some were humorous:

“Wait, I thought it was traditional to keep the tree up until all of the needles fall off on their own. Not everybody does that?”

Others were attempts at chasing away the post Christmas blues:

“keep playing Christmas music and turning on the lights on the tree ’til Jan 6th and see if that helps post Christmas blues!”

“Our tree stays up until after New Year. Seems a shame to cut all the festivities short.”

One or two folks replied with comments about early Church traditions:

“Don't you know there are 12 days of Christmas?”

When the author replied to our encouragements with these words—“Post Christmas blues, for me, have to be fought with a vengeance...I was hoping being Orthodox would change that, but I'm not quite there yet….”—the subject got stuck in my mind, and has stayed there for several days.

At breakfast with a friend yesterday, we talked about the whole Orthodox tradition of fasting and preparing for the feast (Christmas) for 40 days beforehand, and then celebrating for 12 days afterwords—until the Feast of Theophany on January 6. We both agreed that it’s a huge struggle because the Orthodox approach clashes with the culture in which we live.

Our non-Orthodox friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers are celebrating the season all during December, with parties and food and drink and festivities. Our children are enmeshed in this pre-Christmas celebration in their schools. Every shopping mall is filled with shiny decorations and the tempting aromas of chocolates and roasted meats. It’s all so familiar for those of us who grew up with these non-Orthodox traditions, and many converts to Orthodoxy struggle with ambivalence during the Nativity Fast.

One friend told me that she just pretty much gave up on it this year (the Fast) … that it was just too hard to swim against the tide. So her family didn’t focus so much on fasting and didn’t avoid the pre-Christmas parties, but entered into the season with joy. She said that one reason it’s so hard to accept the Orthodox fasting-feasting practice at Christmas is because we really don’t do much “feasting” after Christmas. We deprive ourselves of the festivities going on around us during December and then really only celebrate on one day—Christmas. Often it feels like a let-down after weeks of “preparation,” to cram all the celebrating into one day. Our efforts often leave us with too much of everything: presents, food, drink, and all the stimulation that goes with it. We end up in food comas, exhausted, and yes, often depressed.

I think this was some of what my Facebook friend was expressing. If we’re going to embrace the Orthodox tradition, we need to learn to celebrate the Orthodox SEASON of the Feast of Christmas, with festivities during the 12 days following December 25.

Small parishes that are close-knit and somewhat isolated from the “outside world” probably do a better job of this. And even our parish here in a large metropolitan area offers opportunities, like Christmas caroling at St. Paul Skete the day after Christmas, which is a Feast Day for the Mother of God. And some years we’ve had a mid-week Liturgy with a pizza party following. But somehow those often don’t seem like “enough.” It may take us (converts) many years to adjust to this different rhythm of fasting and feasting.

Another Feast during this season offers an opportunity for celebration, but it
also “clashes” with the secular activities of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Tonight at St. John we’ll be having Great Vespers for the Circumcision of our Lord and for the Feast Day of Saint Basil the Great (my husband’s patron)—both commemorated on January 1 on the Orthodox calendar. Saint Basil established the first orphanage and the first Christian hospital in the world. We’ll have a potluck at church, and I’ll make the traditional Vasilopita, the “Saint Basil Bread,” in which I’ll hide a gold coin. You can read the story of the tradition here. (Be sure and click on the video of the Greek children singing!)

And I just discovered (too late for this year) that you can actually order a special Saint Basil coin for the bread, here.

You know, I’m a worldly person. I love stuff. I love food and wine and parties and music and all things festive. But I also have a passion for the Church and have struggled for over twenty years with this balance between the “Orthodox way” and the “world’s way.” I’m weary from the struggle, and like my friend expressed at coffee yesterday, I just want it to feel “normal.” But I’m not willing to give up on what the Church in her wisdom is trying to offer me.

This morning I asked God to help me learn to embrace His Feast in the way He intends for me. And then I read the following words, which comprise the quote of the day on the last page (December 31) of the 2009 Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar:

“At the approach of a great feast you must watch yourself with particular care. The enemy endeavors beforehand to chill your heart towards the event being celebrated, so that you will not honor it by whole-heartedly considering its reality. He acts upon us through the weather, or through the food and drink we have taken, or through his own arrows thrown plentifully at the heart and inflaming the entire person, at which time evil, impure and blasphemous thoughts occur to us, and we feel thoroughly averse to the solemnity. We must overcome the enemy for forcing ourselves to meditate and pray devoutly.”
– St. John of Kronstadt

Finding these words this morning was truly a gift from God. As I approach this, the 7th Day of Christmas, I find myself going around the house singing, happy to still have Christmas decorations up, and joyfully looking forward to making the Vasilopita and bringing it to church tonight. Even the “young folks” who have plans for bringing in the New Year out on the town later are welcome to begin their evening with this beautiful service of Great Vespers first.

And then tomorrow—on the 8th Day of Christmas, the Feast Day of Saint Basil—my
husband and I welcome friends into our home to continue the celebration. And although we won’t be praying and singing church hymns, I think God will bless our time together watching football, eating, drinking, and playing games, because He created us to celebrate, and He is the reason for our joy.

And I know He will be watching over my daughter, who is on her way to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in Denver, and my oldest son who is deployed in Afghanastan. Happy New Year’s, Beth, Jason, See, Grace and Jon!

However your family commemorates the day, I pray you will be safe and full of thankfulness for God’s abundant blessings.

And so I close another year of posts here at Pen and Palette. Thanks so much to all my faithful readers. I'd love t hear your comments on this post!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Scent of a ... Book

About a year ago I did a blog post called, “Support Your Local Independent Booksellers.” While I’ll admit that I do order books from from time to time, I really prefer to shop at Burke’s or Davis Kidd in Memphis, and at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi. Why? The service, the atmosphere, the informed staff, the love of the book that permeates the air inside these literary havens.

So, tonight when I took a break from the holiday festivities to sit by the fire and open the January/February 2010 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, I was thrilled to see that Square Books in Oxford was selected for the first of a series of profiles on indie bookstores. You can read the article, which includes Jeremiahs Chamberlin’s interview with Richard Howorth, here.

My favorite part of the interview was this part of Richard’s response to Jeremiah’s question, “With developments like the Kindle and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay relevant in the twenty-first century?”

“The way I see it though I think that digital technology will go on, on its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it’s a perfect invention. I don’t care what series number of Kindle you're on, it is never going to be better than this. [Holds up a book.] … this thing is pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.”

And so I’m off to bed with, you guessed it, a good book. Hardcover. First edition. And when no one is looking, I just might run my fingers over the pages to feel the texture, and pull the book to my nostrils to breathe in that comforting “book smell.” It’s all part of the experience. (Flannery O’Connor admitted to loving National Geographic Magazine because of how it felt and smelled.) And like Richard said, it’s irreplaceable.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best Christmas (Card) Ever

There are dozens of beautiful, special, personal Christmas cards on our kitchen counter. We are so grateful to our friends and family who make the effort to connect during this time of year, and I especially love reading everyone’s Christmas newsletters and looking at the photos of everyone’s kids and grand kids. But I also love to receive a “real old-fashioned” Christmas card which also has art work and a well-written sentiment on the inside. And of course homemade cards go above and beyond the call.

So… there are only 5 cards on our mantle. This might sound un-Christmassy, but those are my “favorite” cards for the year. Not because I love the people who sent them more or because they blessed me more, but because of their creativity. Today I decided which one of the five was my favorite, and it’s this one, from Sarah and Joel Finley in Franklin, Tennessee.

Why? Sarah was one of my iconography students, and their card features an icon she did in one of my workshops. It’s called “The Mother of God, Tenderness.” It’s only the third icon she’s ever written.

I will think of her and all my students tonight and tomorrow as we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. The Feast of His Incarnation. The reason we write icons.

Christ is Born!

Glorify Him!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Incarnation: The Goal of Everything

As we approach the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, I have no words with which to adequately reflect on “the mystery hidden from before all ages and unknown even to the angels.” (Eph. 3:9) And so, I will share the words of others—written by theologians, painted by iconographers, and acted and sung by the children at St. John Orthodox Church.

In the winter issue of “The Burning Bush,” the monastic journal of the Dormition of the Mother of God Orthodox Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan, there are two excellent articles, “On the Nativity of our Lord” and “On the Incarnation.” I will quote briefly from these pieces, and if you’d like to receive the journal, you can leave your email address in the comment box or send an email to the monastery at

“God’s Incarnation means man’s deification. In his treatise ‘On the Incarnation of the Word,’ Saint Athanasius says that ‘god was made man that we might be made God’ (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Erdmans 2nd series, pg 65)…. The image has as its goal man’s deification. The ‘icon’ tends towards its prototype. Man looks for God in many ways: in science and technology, in philosophy and art; this searching is ingrained in man’s reasonable nature, so that for the achievement of his likeness and unity with God, the Incarnation of God Himself was indispensable….

“No other religion in the world believes in a god who became man…. By taking flesh the Word of God is the expression of the Father whom we can see and touch; He was hungry and thirsty, He spoke, He walked, without losing His divinity; this is a prefiguration of how we are to be saved. The infinite takes on a human nature and human nature is united with the Infinite….

“God did not come down to earth to found religions. He came for the restoration of man; He came for His creation, not to make Orthodox or Catholics out of us. God became incarnate because he wanted to make man divine, to restore him to the same state to which He originally created him…. So the idea of the Incarnation, the idea of Christ—God becoming man—is in the center of everything, the goal of everything.”

This is why we paint icons, because God has redeemed matter through the Incarnation, allowing us to depict His Son, His Mother, and His Saints, in images that will lead us to Heaven, that will ultimately save the world.

For the past few weeks, the Orthodox iconographer, Dmitry Scholnik, and two of his helpers, having been painting icons, installing icons, repairing icons, and painting decorative borders and backgrounds in the nave and sanctuary at St. John Orthodox Church. The Gospel has truly come alive in color on the walls and ceiling of our temple. (You can see an album with more photos here.)

Our annual children’s Nativity Play was yesterday, and again the children acted out the traditional Christmas story against a backdrop designed to look like an icon of the Nativity. (The scenery was designed, constructed and painted by Nathan Elliott, who is an architect, and Julie Stanek, an artist, a few years ago.) If you’d like to see an explanation of all the parts of the Nativity Icon, click here, and then run your cursor over each part of the icon.

Again, more pictures from the play are in an album, here.

The children ended the play by singing the “Kontakion” (hymn) of Christmas, “Today the Virgin Gives Birth.”

So there you have it—theology, iconography, drama and music—all very physical means of communicating the spiritual. Because God is a spirit, but also because God became Man.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Feel So Small

Since my visit with my mother in November, I’ve been preparing for today’s visit with a little less anxiety and a little more peace and joy. It helped that I had a wonderful “lunch reunion” with three old friends from high school first, because we each shared a little bit about our journeys with our aging parents… one who lost her father to Alzheimer’s, and another whose mother AND mother-in-law have just moved in with she and her husband. A terrible consequence of my self-focused anxiety is that I rarely think about how universal our experience is. Thanks to Kit, Sharon and Sandra, (in photo with me at lunch) I arrived at Lakeland Nursing Home with an even greater sense of peace.

Of course I never know, each time I drive down here, if Mom is still going to know me or not, and thankfully, she recognized me today. (She no longer recognizes any of my children’s names or pictures in photographs, and even gets a vague, far-away look when I talk about Daddy.) But today I gave out homemade fudge (Mom’s recipe) to all the folks at the nursing home who take care of Mom, and then found her sitting in her wheel chair in the hall near one of the nurses’ stations. Her face lit up when she saw me.

I was feeling guilty (a recurring bad daughter theme) because the home was having a door decorating contest and I hadn’t done anything for her door, so I was thrilled to find this joyful snowman d├ęcor done by the activities director with help from Mom!

Mom’s taste memory came back when we shared some fudge, and she seemed happy with her new socks, slippers, and pajamas.

But later, when we were sitting in the lobby, I asked her if the new slipper-boots were comfortable and she said, “Yes. You know, a boy in one of the classes gave me these boots. I don’t remember his name, or when he gave them to me, but I said sure I’d love to have them.” This was about 15 minutes after I gave them to her. I wonder if she was thinking of one of the students she taught 50 years ago.

I just smiled and said, “I’m so glad you like them!”

We held hands and watched the sunset in the midst of the tall pine trees outside the lobby windows, which are about 20 feet tall. For a while we didn’t speak at all, which is very unusual for Mom and me. Twice she just looked and me and said, “I love you.” And more than once she said, “I really like it here.” And then she looked out the window at the trees and said, “You know, I feel so small. And when I think about dying, I think I’ll be okay if I can go to a small place.”

“You mean, like Heaven?” I asked. “You know Dad is there, waiting for us to join him some day. But I don’t think of Heaven as being a small place, do you?”

She was quiet for a minute, then struggled with her words, and finally said, “well, I think my part of it will be small, and I’ll be happy there.”

Her words reminded me of a sad but powerful conversation a friend told me about last night. The precious 28-year-old daughter of some friends of ours was in the hospital as a result of seizures she had during the day yesterday. Sara has always been one of God’s “innocents,” and she told the people with her at the hospital, “I’ll be happy to go to Heaven because I won’t have Down’s Syndrome there.” And then she died of a pulmonary embolism. Sara’s parents are dear friends of mine from Jackson, and today I’m thinking about how happy she is in Heaven, although I know her family is missing her so much. Sara fought a hard battle, psychologically and spiritually, and in her shadow I’m feeling pretty small. Her funeral will be Monday night at St. Peter Orthodox Church here in Madison, where my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway's funeral was held eleven years ago. May her memory be eternal.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Sons of Earth, Part II

Busy week, so I'm going to link to my post this time last year, about our church's annual Christmas caroling event at Kings Daughters & Sons Nursing Home. Please take a minute to read the post,"Born to Raise the Sons of Earth,"here.

Singing Christmas carols to the folks in a nursing home is only one way to raise the Sons of Earth during the Christmas season. It's cold here in Memphis. One day last week I put a heavy blanket in my car and drove a few blocks from where I live into an area with a fairly heavy traffic of poor and homeless folks. I saw a woman pushing a shopping cart with lots of bundles. She seemed homeless, so I pulled over and asked if she had a warm place to sleep that night.

"No, ma'am, but I'll find me a spot somewhere."

"Could you use a really warm blanket?"

Her face lit up. "Yes, ma'am! That'd be real nice!"

So I got out of the car and handed her the blanket and her eyes filled with tears, but no more than my own. We embraced, and as I was about to walk away, I turned and asked, "Have you got something to eat for supper?" It was getting dark outside, and she was about a mile from the mission where they serve meals downtown.

"Oh, I've got a little bit."

I reached in my purse and found some cash and gave it to her. More hugs.

As I turned to get back into my car, an elderly man in a wheelchair with only one leg approached me. "Ma'am? Have you got another blanket?"

My heart sank as I thought about the extra blankets in our closets and attics at the house, where we would be warm and toasty.

"No, sir, I'm sorry. I didn't bring more with me today."

He nodded and wheeled off towards a church a block away, where several people were sitting on the steps. I said a prayer that someone would help him.

When I got home, I found a couple of more blankets we don't need and put them in the trunk of my car. I'm about to head back out today on errands, and I'll be keeping an eye open for folks who might be sleeping outside tonight.

Have you got extra blankets at your house? It only takes a few minutes to find someone who needs them.... the poor and homeless... the Sons of Earth.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Icons and the Incarnation: Taking Our Humanity Seriously

As we approach the celebration of our Lord’s Incarnation—His becoming Man in the flesh—my mind immediately thinks of icons. Why icons? Because icons are incarnational art. Yes.

Two years ago this month my essay, “Icons Will Save the World,” was published by First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life.

You can read the entire essay here.

For those who don’t have the time (or the inclination) to read the entire essay, I’ll re-print one section here, “Incarnational Art”:


In the “First Apology of Saint John of Damascus Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images,” Saint John talked about Old Testament images like the ark of the covenant (an image of the Holy Virgin and Theotokos) and the rod of Aaron and the jar of manna. These are all visible things that aid understanding of intangible things. We read in Exodus 25–26 how God instructed Moses to use images in the tabernacle—including angels woven on the veil of the holy of holies. It’s true that later on God forbade the making of images because of idolatry—because of man’s misuse of something God intended for good. But that was before the Incarnation, as St. John explained:

It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw His likeness. When He who is bodiless and without form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it.

God’s Incarnation not only made it possible for us to draw and venerate his image, but also the images of men and women who have been transfigured by him—the saints and martyrs. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which upheld the doctrine of the veneration of images as an inevitable result of the Incarnation, said this about icons of saints:

These holy men of all times who pleased God, whose biographies have remained in writing for our benefit and for the purpose of our salvation, have also left to the catholic Church their deeds explained in paintings, so that our mind may remember them, and so that we may be lifted up to the level of their conduct.

The icons are visions of what we can become if we allow God to penetrate every aspect of our lives. Those who attain this God-likeness to the fullest extent recognized by the Church are saints. Their lives, their stories, lift us up to be all that we can be—as we are transformed by God’s grace and love.

The Incarnation should cause us to take our humanity seriously, as Vrame says. And if we take our humanity seriously, we will not scorn the physical, material things that the Church in her wisdom has given us as aids for transforming that humanity, for restoring the image that fell in the beginning.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bring Lee Back to the South!

Save the Date! Lee Gutkind, the
"Godfather of Creative Nonfiction," is returning to the South the weekend of October 22-24, 2010, for another Creative Nonfiction Conference!

I met Lee at a one-day CNF workshop at Ole Miss in September of 2007, and it was a life-changing weekend for me. I finally had words to describe what I was trying to write--personal essays and memoir are both forms of the genre known as creative nonfiction. And Lee's class that day opened my eyes to the craft in a whole new way.

That was also the weekend I met my friends, Neil White and Kathy Rhodes. I'm working with Neil and Kathy to help organize the 2010 Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference.

The following March, Ole Miss again hosted a CNF Conference, complete with keynote speakers, panels, pitch sessions with editors, agents, and publishers, and two critique workshops, led by Dinty Moore and Kristen Iversen. I submitted a different manuscript to each of these critique sessions, and learned so much from Dinty and Kristen and my fellow students. One of those students was Sarah Einstein. I've enjoyed staying in touch with Sarah through our blogs and email. (Sometimes I'm a huge fan of the social media!)

Check out our event page on Facebook: 2010 Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference, and leave an RSVP if you think you can come. Spread the word, and keep watching my blog and Facebook for more information as plans are made. Read my blog posts about the CNF Workshop in 2007 and the CNF Conference in 2008 for reflections and photos about both of those wonderful events.

Help us Bring Lee Back to the South! Um, well, not that Lee....

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sacred Threshold

Blessed Saint Nicholas Day! It's almost midnight, so I'm getting this post in just under the wire for this special day. I've been thinking about it all weekend...about the wonderful play our teens put on at St. John last night as part of our Saint Nicholas weekend celebration. And reflecting on this feast in years gone by. But I've been too busy decorating the house and wrapping gifts to write anything today.

Here's the (tiny) tree...

I call it our "Gracie" tree in honor of our granddaughter Grace... I got these precious little Asian girl ornaments at Pier 1 last week.

And the fireplace with stockings in the process of stuffing...

Including a new stocking for our granddaughter, Grace.

And gifts waiting to be mailed or delivered.... Yes, it's definitely beginning
to look a lot like Christmas!

And here are a couple of photos of Caleb McGee and my husband hanging the outdoor lights yesterday.

No time for writing, but I'm going to link to a blog post that I saw on Facebook tonight..... it's called "Sacred Threshold." The blogger became a member of St Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee today. Her blog post is such a blessing. If you take a few minutes to read about her spiritual journey, I guarantee you will be blessed.

Holy Saint Nicholas, pray to God for us!

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Bonfire For My Vanities

When I’m angry, and don’t deal with that anger in a healthy way, it leaks out in destructive behaviors. That’s what happened a couple of times this week, when I allowed my pride to be wounded and my feelings to be hurt by unintentional slights. First I unloaded my anger on a dear friend, who received it with such tenderness that she turned my ranting into tears and softened my hardness by her embrace. Amazing what love and acceptance can do, isn’t it? And later that night my sweet husband listened patiently and offered gentle encouragement without judgment. And while I am thankful for both of these kindnesses, I knew I still needed to address my own sinfulness—the anger itself—directly.

I believe there are healthy ways to deal with anger—the most effective for me being the sacrament of Confession. And sometimes talking with the people I'm angry with can help, but not if I’m just after an apology. I’ve learned from past experience that it’s not healthy for me to try to ignore the problem, because it won’t usually resolve itself. The last time I felt this level of ire was a little over two years ago. I wrote about it here.

And I guess a good thing that came out of that struggle was my essay, “Blocked,” which was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal's 2007 awards.

And yes, I eventually got “unblocked,” but spiritual health is not unlike physical health, in that we have to keep our souls cleaned out or they get clogged up. I was reminded of that in a beautiful way Thursday morning at our monthly women’s meeting, led by our pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn. We’ve been reading some of the writings of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich. Yesterday we read from his beautiful volume of spiritual poetry, Prayers By the Lake. (You can read many of the poems here.) Father John Troy had shared these poems with me many years ago, but I hadn’t read any of them in quite a while, until yesterday morning, when they arrived like soothing oil on a wound. First we read Saint Justin Popovich’s Introduction, which was a blessing in itself. St. Justin says, of St. Nikolai and his writing:

“He will be the hearth where those who have been frostsbitten by skepticism and lack of faith will come to thaw and warm themselves….

“He, a wonderworker of prayerful rhythms, has power over my soul. I tell myself: ‘I am locked in the senses, I think by means of the senses, but when his wonder-working prayer flows through my repentant soul, at once the senses, these shackles of the soul, are unshackled, and my soul, my wounded bird, regains her wings and flies off, diving into the sweet depths of Eternity.’ And my paralyzed heart tells me: ‘He breaks out of the cocoon of time and space which engulfs and suffocates your soul, and he dries the butterfly of our soul out into the blue expanses of infinite Eternity.'”

[Side note: When we read that part about the blue expanses of infinite Eternity, I thought about the work that our iconographer, Dmitry Shkolnik and his helpers are installing at St. John right now… and especially about the celestial effect of the new blue background in the altar. I’ll post pictures and notes about the new icons soon. A post from his last visit, in February of 2008, is here.]

We only read a few of St. Nikolai’s poems Thursday morning. St. Justin recommends that you read only one per day, and to read them slowly, and prayerfully. This volume of poems would make a wonderful Christmas gift for someone you love, or buy it for yourself and read a poem with your prayers each day. I’ll just share a few lines to show the healing power of his poetry:

"O Lord, Lord my only happiness, will You provide shelter for Your injured pilgrim?

"O Lord, my ageless youth, my eye shall bathe in You and shine more radiantly than the sun.

"You carefully collect the tears of the righteous, and with them you rejuvenate worlds."

I think the following are the words I most needed to hear today, when my self-inflicted wounds of pride and anger were so raw:

“Do not be afraid of the inextinguishable fire that He brings into you. For a long time the junk accumulated within you has been in need of a bonfire. The bonfire will last a long time, because the old junk within you has rotted.”

Oh, yes, I need a bonfire to burn up the vanities I have stored in my soul for so long. This week that bonfire comes to me in the warmth of my friends’ understanding, my husband’s loving embrace, and the healing sacraments of the Church, especially the mysteries of Confession and Communion. And it comes to me through the gifted theologian and poet, Saint Nikolai and the other saints who “know the mysteries of our Orthodox soul, they know how the rebellious and Christ-fighting … soul can be molded into a Christlike soul.”

Holy Saint Nikolai, pray to God for us.

Monday, November 30, 2009

How Do We Get Past It?

This will be brief... I've been in Denver celebrating Thanksgiving with my children (all but Jon, who's in Afghanastan) and new granddaughter and came home to long "to do" lists. But when I saw this article that hit the New York Times on Thanksgiving Day, I had to comment on it.

If you're new to my blog, you might want to check these previous posts for a little back story about Kim Michele Richardson's amazing memoir, The Unbreakable Child:

Who Wears the Face of God?

Q & A With The Unbreakable Child: Kim Michele Richardson
, and

The Face of God in Ireland.

As you can tell, I'm passionate about this issue of child abuse, especially by clergy. Children who never have any sense of acceptance or security struggle to ever get past it as adults. (I'm reading Mary Karr's amazing memoir, Lit, right now, and can't wait to review it... soon!) At one point Karr asks her therapist how she can ever get past it, and he says, "You've got to nurture yourself.... realize you're not lost. You're an adult."

Watching my adopted son, Jason, holding his birth daughter, and seeing how much he loves her and wants to protect her and give her the connectedness he's always longed for, I often fought back tears while we were visiting him this Thanksgiving. Although Jason wasn't abused, his pain comes from having been relinquished by his birth mother, and separated from her and his birth sister all these years. I can see his resolve in repairing that breach in his own new little family that he's growing now. Hopefully Grace won't ever know that pain and will grow up with the nurturing every child deserves from birth.

Looking for a wonderful Christmas gift for someone who loves to read or just cares deeply about people in general and children in particular? Get them Kim's book, The Unbreakable Child. It's full of forgiveness and redemption--just the message the world needs now.

So, how do we get past it? Yes, by forgiving the unforgiveable, but also by holding the abusers, and those who cover for them, accountable.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Thanksgiving is an American tradition, not a religious holiday. And yet I find myself looking to God, and to my Church and its traditions this year. Maybe it's because I miss my own family's traditions... the ones we shared for years in Jackson, Mississippi, at my Aunt Barbara Jo and Uncle Dan's house. There would always be a house full of cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and sometimes friends. The food was amazing (the BEST dressing ever. This is not up for discussion) but the family time is what I miss. You see, my family (maybe like yours?) was pretty dysfunctional in many ways, but somehow on Thanksgiving we managed to be, well, thankful.

So this Thanksgiving I have much to be thankful for, but I've been battling this funk (see previous posts about acedia, etc.) and also kinda wishing I had all "my people" here with me in Memphis. Where are they?

My mother, who has Alzheimer's and won't remember what day it is, is in a nursing home in Mississippi. Our oldest son, Jonathan, is in Jalalabad, Afghanastan, flying helicopters for the Army. He just sent me an instant message a few minutes ago and hopes to be able to call us tomorrow. This is his first time in Afghanastan (he's only been there a couple of weeks) but he's done two tours in Iraq.

My younger son, Jason, and his wife, See and their daughter, Grace, are in Denver, but "Pops" and I are flying out to see them first thing in the morning, and for that I'm very thankful!

And, our daughter, Beth, is already there... she flew out tonight and will be there when we arrive tomorrow. So, there will be 6 of us at Jason and See's apartment for Thanksgiving, and for that I'm also thankful.(Just for fun, here's a picture of Beth in kindgergarten, being an Indian at Thanksgiving. That's Granny Effie and me with her.... you can tell it's the 80s by the hair:-)

And yet, each time I've sat down to write a blog post about Thanksgiving, I haven't come up with anything very creative, or insightful. So, I've decided to share a link to a blog that I follow regularly. It's called "Glory to God for All Things." The author is Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Father Stephen was guest speaker at our annual women's retreat at St John Orthodox Church here in Memphis recently, and I'm still "processing" the talks that he gave.

So, if you're looking for something spiritual, uplifting, or thought provocative this Thanksgiving, read his post, "Thanksgiving," and also this one, "The Good Confession."

I'm getting up at 5 a.m. for an early flight to Denver, so I'll close by saying Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all a good night!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer (A Slow Spin on a Hot Spit)

Mary Karr is one of my favorite memoirists, right up there with Ann Lamott and Haven Kimmel, who is also a poet, and Kim Michelle Richardson (and yes, she’s a poet, too). Oh and also Augusten Burroughs. So I was excited to read Karr’s book of poetry, Sinners Welcome, this past week.

Like her memoirs, Cherry and The Liar’s Club, Sinners Welcome is gritty. It doesn’t pull any punches. I find great comfort in her honesty and humility, and my faith grows as I read about her journey to God. In “Waiting For God: Self-Portrait As Skeleton,” she writes about her mother’s death, and reflects on her mother’s insane life style:

“… Was it God
who dragged her from the kitchen floor
where she’d puked and the guy had pissed himself
to detox, to a rickety chair where she eventually sat upright
with eyes clear as seawater? Yes, I said
to myself one day, kneeling, I believe
that’s right
. Then from the hard knot at my skull’s base
I felt warm oil as from a bath bead broken open
somehow flow upward to cover my skull, and my hair
came streaming down again,
and the soft clay crawled back to form my face.”

As wonderful as her poetry is, the big surprise and greatest blessing of her book, for me, turned out to be the afterword, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer.” Karr had been asked to write this essay for the journal, Poetry, but I missed it there, so I’m thrilled to find it in the back of this book of her own poetry. You can read the entire essay at Poetry online, here.

Karr writes about how poetry can minister to hurting, doubting souls, sometimes in ways that nothing else can. If you’re a conservative Christian and you’re reading this and thinking, “what about Scripture?” I would say to you, yes! Read the Psalms! But I would say to those creative spirits out there, that poetry can save. Or it can at least keep you from falling so deeply into the abyss that you can’t reach a hand up to God for help.

As Karr says of a particularly dark time in her life:

“In this state—what Dickinson called ‘sumptuous destitution’—prayer was a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry could still draw me out of myself, easing my loneliness as it had since earliest kidhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar…. The first source of awe for me, partly because of how it could ease my sense of isolation: it was a line thrown from seemingly glorious Others to my drear-minded self.”

Now, before you think, “Oh, no, Susan is giving up on prayer” let me just say that prayer is the singular most difficult task I have ever attempted in my life. Well, that and fasting. Well, and maybe also dispassion and moderation and sobriety, but all those are really outcomes of a life of prayer, and not ends in themselves. But back to Karr’s essay:

“But if you’re in a frame of mind gloomy enough to refuse prayer, despite its having worked bona fide miracles for you before, nothing satisfies like a dark poem. Maybe wrestling with gnarly language occupies the loud and simian chatter of a dismayed mind, but for me the relief comes to some extent form a hookup to another creature. The compassion innate in having someone—however remote—verbalize your despair or lend a form to it can salve the jibbering psyche.”

These words brought to mind my ongoing struggle with acedia. And while Norris might not have all the answers, the struggle she shares is almost enough in and of itself to cheer me in my own fight, you know?

Like Karr, I’m more often drawn to God, Church and prayer because of a great neediness or pain or suffering or anger or hurt. And like her, I’m in awe of people who are drawn to God simply to praise him. Prayer and worship are messy affairs, and our motives and brokenness are all in there together, or as Karr puts it:

“Maybe saints turn to God to exalt Him, from innate righteousness. The rest of us tend to show up holding out a tin cup…. With both prayer and poetry, we use elegance to exalt, but we also beg and grieve and tremble. We suffer with prayer and poetry alike. Boy, do we suffer.”

There’s a simplicity in Karr’s writing that reminds me of Ann Lamott, especially in her memoir, Grace Eventually. They both surprised their friends by turning to God for help with their addictions. Lamott would pray, in the face of temptations to drink, use, or abuse alcohol, drugs or food, “Help me, Help me, Help me!” and then when the help came, she would pray, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!”

Karr “starting kneeling to pray morning and night—spitefully at first, in a bitter pout. The truth is, I still very much fancied the idea that glugging down Jack Daniel’s would stay my turmoil….. Ergo, I prayed—not with the misty-eyed glee I’d seen on Song of Berndette…. I prayed with belligerence, at least once with a middle finger aimed at the light fixture---my own small unloaded bazooka pointed at the Almighty. I said Keep me sober, in the morning. I said, Thanks, at night.”

Reading these words I was, of course, turning the pages quickly to see if it “worked.” And I read on:

“And though I’d been bouncing on and off the wagon for a few years, unable to give up booze for more than a period of weeks (with and without the help of other human beings), I didn’t pick up a drink. Which seemed—to one who’d studied positivism and philosophy of science in college—a psychological payoff to the dumb process of getting on my knees twice a day to talk to myself.”

So, her volume of poetry, Sinners Welcome, is shot through with poems about Christ but also with transparent broken humanity. As she says, about the volume:

“My new aesthetic struggle is to accommodate joy as part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin-challenged bitch.”

I’m so thankful to have discovered Mary Karr, the woman, the poet, the writer, the mother, the struggler to whom I can relate. Like her, I want my work to be infused with light:

“Having devoted the first half of my life to the dark, I feel obliged to locate any pinpoint of light now. And writing this essay did fling open a window so some column of sun shone down on me again. When I hit my knees again during Lent, I felt God’s sturdy presence, and I knew right off it wasn’t God who’d checked out in the first place…. That’s why I pray and poetize: to be able to see my brothers and sister despite my own (often petty) agonies, to partake of the majesty that’s every sinner’s birthright.

JULY 2005”

So here I am in “Nativity Lent” and what book am I choosing for my spiritual reading? Karr’s new memoir, “Lit,” which I started on last night. Stay tuned for a review in a few weeks.

And if you ‘re looking for some poetry for yourself or to give as Christmas gifts, I highly recommend Sinners Welcome, as well as these great books of poetry:

Scott Cairns’ Compass of Affection

Beth Ann Fennelly’s Unmentionables

Anne Fisher-Wirth’s Five Terraces

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Inebriation of Soberness

It's only the fifth day of the Nativity Fast (for Orthodox Christians) and as I continue to struggle to embrace it as the spiritual blessing it's meant to be, rather than as strange rules that ruin the festive spirit of the pre-Christmas season, I'm thankful to read these words by St. Ambrose of Milan:

"If you offer fasting with humility and with mercy, your bones, as Isaiah said, shall be fat, and you shall be like a well-watered garden (Isaiah 58:11). So then, your soul shall grow fat and its virtues also by the spiritual richness of fasting, and your fruit shall be multiplied by the fertility of your mind, so that there may be in you the inebriation of soberness, like that cup of which the Prophet says: 'Your cup which inebriates, how excellent it is' (Ps. 23)!"

The inebriation of soberness.
I want that. Maybe that's what it feels like to have a fat soul and a fertile mind. And into the mix, I wouldn't mind having a skinny body. Some of the saints write that heavy bodies weigh down our souls, making it more difficult for us to soar to heaven. I think that's true in my case, because I just feel more lazy and down-trodden when I'm overweight. And in the past, during certain Lenten Fasts when I've been able, by God's grace, to keep the fast a little more obediently, I do remember feeling "lighter" ... not only in my body but in my heart. More alert to God, and to the people around me. I wonder if having "fat bones" means stronger bones, which will help my osteoarthritis? St. Ambrose was not only a bishop, but also had the gift of wonder working, and healed many. You can read more about him here.

The trick, I think, is not to approach the Fast as a "diet"... not to have weight loss or lack of physical pain as my goals, but rather to desire to have good fruits. And if, along with those good fruits, I am perchance also granted the inebriation of soberness, that would be, as the Psalmist says, most excellent.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Unexpected Gift

Yesterday was my bi-monthly visit with my mother at Lakeland Nursing Home in Jackson, Mississippi. If you’re new to my blog, Mom is 81 and has Alzheimer’s. For links to past blog posts about Mom, click here. But my most recent post about mom is here.

As I drove down to visit her, I received a phone call from a dear friend in Memphis. Her mother had fallen and was in the hospital. Another friend’s mother had also fallen, a few days ago, and is now staying with her daughter and family as they decide if she can return to her home, assisted living, or other options. And yet a third friend emailed me with news of her father’s recent diagnosis with cancer. This business of getting old is complicated, I think, by two things in particular, and probably a whole slew of things in general. The specific things I’m thinking of now are:

1. People are living longer, due to medical advances, and
2. Families don’t stay together as much as they once did. And other cultures continue to have extended families living under one roof, while we Americans want “our space” and to live our lives unhindered by the burden of 24/7 care of aging parents. (I do have several friends who have their elderly parents living with them. They are better people than I could ever be.)

Anyway, when I visited with Mom on Monday, she did recognize me. “This is my little girl!” she told the ladies in the wheelchairs on either side of her in the hall.

“Oh, she looks just like you!” one of them said, and I thanked her. I think my mother is beautiful.

After our usual interaction about practical matters, which are completely lost
on her now (I washed and ironed two of your blouses, Mom, and I’m putting them in your closet now. Where is my closet? Be sure you don’t lose them, etc.) I wheeled Mom up to the front lobby where we could visit and share a piece of coffee cake from Starbucks.

I entered her world, as I always do, and complimented her, again, for her landscaping work on the patio (which of course she had nothing to do with) and showed her (again) photographs of her great-granddaughter, Grace, whom she can’t fathom, as she struggles to remember even her grandchildren at this point. She can no longer form complete sentences, but speaks in fragments, sometimes apologizing that she can’t remember a word, a person, a place…

But suddenly, she smiles at me and says, “I love your hair!”

“Really? I haven’t had it this short in years. I’m glad you like it.”

“It’s very flattering.”

Smile. “Thank you, Mom. I really like yours long, in a ponytail, like you wore it when you were young."

This conversation is repeated 3-4 times, which didn’t bother me at all. I could have listened to her praise and compliments all day. They were rare for most of my life. And even though she was talking about something as mundane as a haircut, coming from someone who, when she was “in her right mind,” usually criticized me for being fat, having bad hair, etc., this was like oil being poured out on a wound. At age 58, I was finally receiving praise and approval from my mother.

If this sounds silly to you, you might as well just quit reading this blog post now. Just move along. There’s nothing to see here. But if this strikes a chord with you, please keep reading, because it gets better.

As I was about to leave, the sky was getting dark and it began to rain.

“Mom, it’s going to be thunder storming, and I need to drive back to Memphis, so I’d better leave soon.”

Mom’s smile faded, and she reached out, grabbed my hand, held it tightly, closed her eyes and prayed:

“Oh, Lord, we ask you to protect Susan as she drives. Take care of her and keep her safe….” She went on and on, for several sentences, speaking with complete clarity.

Tears ran down my face as I listened to my mother, who usually can’t speak a complete sentence, pray with such beauty and ease. I don’t remember my mother ever praying for me, with me, like that. Ever. All the years of verbal and emotional abuse that I suffered from her seemed to melt. Forgiveness gushed from my soul as I listened to her prayer.

When she finished, she opened her eyes, smiled, and kissed me on the lips.

I drove home to Memphis through the rain with no difficulties, and with an unusual peace. When I told my husband the story on the phone tonight, I said, “her prayer reminded me of my father, who was a teacher and prayed eloquently.”

“She was replaying the tape of your father’s prayers,” my husband offered. And I wept at his words, picturing my parents, doing their daily devotionals together every morning. Dad was eloquent. As an elder in their Presbyterian Church, he preached many sermons during interims when they didn’t have a pastor. And he led evangelism seminars and taught Sunday School classes. And of course I thought that some day when my mind is struggling to hold on, that my own dear husband’s prayers will be my salvation.

For all the dysfunction of my family of origin, today I am thankful for this unexpected gift of prayer from my mother’s lips. Alzheimer’s might be taking her mind, but God still has her heart, as broken and wounded as it is. I pray that He will protect her soul in the coming months and years that she might have left on this earth, and sustain the peace and forgiveness that I experienced today, by His grace.

Friday, November 13, 2009

How Can I Know?

I’m heading into a busy weekend, so I’m going to “cheat” a bit on this post. I think you’ll forgive me, when you read the words of wisdom that I’m going to “borrow” in a few minutes. You see, I’m going to the annual women’s retreat at St. John Orthodox Church tonight and tomorrow. Our speaker is Father Stephen Freeman, pastor of St. Anne Orthodox Mission in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He has a great blog, “Glory to God For All Things.” I’ve been enjoying getting to know his daughter, Clare, who is a student at the Memphis College of Art.

Anyway, Father Stephen will be speaking tonight and tomorrow on “The Emptiness of God.” I know that sounds like a strange title, but maybe the titles of his four talks, based on Philippians 2:5-7, will shed a little more light: “The Feasts of Emptiness,” “The Fasts of Emptiness,” “The Prayer of Emptiness,” and “The Fullness of Emptiness.” If you’re in Memphis and you’re reading this and want to drop by, his first talk is tonight at 7:30 p.m., and the church is at 1663 Tutwiler, just 2 blocks north of North Parkway, on the corner of Dickinson and Tutwiler. His next talk is at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday. There are prayers and meals and coffee breaks involved…. Call 901-274-4119 for more information.

All that to lead into what I’m going to “borrow” for today’s blog post. As we approach the Nativity Fast (November 15-December 24) which is like a pre-Christmas Lent for Orthodox Christians, I’m always looking for ways to turn up my (very weak) ascetic struggle a notch or two. So, when I received this link from my friend, Father Paul Yerger, last night, I thought, “that’s what I want to share on my blog.” Father Paul is quoting Father Thomas Hopko, retired Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, in his weekly bulletin from Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi.

There are two segments here—one is a more developed exploration that Father Hopko calls, “How Can I Know God as God Really Is?” The second segment is simpler, but longer, and it’s called “55 Maxims.” If you choose to read either or both of these, please don’t think of them as “rules.” I think Father Hopko would agree with me in saying, as I learned when I was part of a 12 Steps Program, “take what works and leave the rest.” The original site where these were posted is here, and it includes a nice introduction about Father Hopko.

The rest of my weekend remains busy, as I welcome two dear friends from out of town (one from Arkansas and one from Mississippi) to stay with me, and then as I head back down to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother and some friends from my high school days. I’ll be back on Monday, which will probably be the next time I’ll post. Have a great weekend, everyone!

And now, your weekend reading:

By Father Thomas Hopko

How can I know God as God really is?

How can I know Christ as the way, the truth, and the life of God, and humanity, the light of the world? How can I know the Orthodox Church as “the household of God,” and “the pillar, and bulwark of the truth” - God’s kingdom on earth? If you want to find answers for yourself to these questions, Orthodox Christian saints, and spiritual teachers would ask you to do the following things as faithfully, and honestly as you can, and to see for yourself what happens.

1. Be ready to do whatever it takes to know. Humbly, and courageously do what you are told without questioning it in any way. Be determined to follow what you come to know, whatever the cost.

2. Pray for enlightenment, even if your prayer is “to whom it may concern.” Pray something like this: “God, if you exist, reveal yourself to me.”
If you already believe in God somehow, then pray: “God, reveal yourself to me as you really are.”
As you pray, do not look for anything. Let whatever happens, happen.

3. While praying this way, read through the New Testament very slowly, at least three times. Take several months to do this. Do not be bothered about what you don’t understand, but try to put into practice what you do understand.

4. During this time, go to Orthodox Church services if you can. Just stand, or sit there, and listen. Do not judge the people who are there, in any way. Do not De bothered about what you don’t understand. If you are a confused, and troubled member of the Orthodox Church, do not serve at the altar, or read, or sing in the choir, during this period.

5. During this time, do not lie about anything, do not consciously harm anyone, try to be kind, and good to everyone you meet, without exception. If possible, do some good work for others, even if just for an hour or two a week, as secretly as possible. Also if possible, give away some money secretly to those in need.

6. During this time, if you are not married, do not engage in any sexual acts at all, of any kind, even with yourself alone. If you fail in this, forget it immediately, and start over.

7. During this time, do not get drunk. Do not eat too much. Do not eat unhealthy foods. And try to eat, and drink less than normal, a couple of days a week, e.g. on Wednesdays, and Fridays.

8. During this time, sit in total silence, at least 10 to 15 minutes a day, or even up to 30 minutes a day, if you can, watching the thoughts that come to your mind, and letting them go with a prayer: “God [if you are there] enlighten my mind. God [if you are there] help me with this. God [if you are there] help these people who come to mind.”

9. During this time, try to speak as little as possible, without irritating others. Do not try to make your opinions known, or accepted in conversations, unless asked. Listen to others. Be attentive to their presence, and their needs. Do not argue with anyone about anything.

10. During this time, find someone that you fully trust, and share with him/her your thoughts, feelings, dreams, hang-ups, compulsions, etc. in detail. Do not, however, go into detail about sexual things, or about other people. Discuss in detail your family of origin, and your childhood experiences — good, and bad. Focus on what memories distress, and sadden you, and what memories bring you joy.

11. During this time, do a “check list” for possible food, alcohol, drug, or sex addictions, and other addictions that you may think that you have, like, e.g. rage, gambling, or shopping. If you see that you are addicted in some way, enter a treatment programme (or a support group).

12. During this time, do your work, or your studies, to the best of your ability: carefully, responsibly, conscientiously, and devotedly. Live a day, even a part of the day, at a time. Focus fully on what you are doing at the given moment.


01. Be always with Christ, and trust God in everything
02. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
03. Have a keepable rule of prayer, done by discipline.
04. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
05. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
06. Make some prostrations when you pray.
07. Eat good foods in moderation, and fast on fasting days.
08. Practice silence: inner, and outer.
09. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
12. Go to confession, and holy communion regularly.
13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts, and feelings.
14. Reveal your thoughts, and feelings to someone regularly.
15. Read the scriptures regularly.
16. Read good books, a little at a time.
17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
19. Be polite with everyone, first of all with family members.
20. Maintain cleanliness, and order in your home.
21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
22. Exercise regularly.
23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
25. Be faithful in little things.
26. Do your work, then forget it.
27. Do the most difficult, and painful things first.
28. Face reality.
29. Be grateful.
30. Be cheerful.
31. Be simple, hidden, quiet, and small.
32. Never bring attention to yourself.
33. Listen when people talk to you.
34. Be awake, and attentive, fully present where you are.
35. Think, and talk about things no more than necessary.
36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur, or whine.
40. Don’t seek, or expect pity, or praise.
41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
44. Don’t defend, or justify yourself.
45. Be defined, and bound by God, not by people.
46. Accept criticism gracefully, and test it carefully.
47. Give advice only when asked, or when it is your duty.
48. Do nothing for people that they can, and should, do for themselves.
49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim, and caprice.
50. Be merciful with yourself, and with others.
51. Have no expectations, except to be fiercely tempted until your last breath.
52. Focus exclusively on God, and light, and never on darkness, temptation, and sin.
53. Patiently endure your faults, and sins peacefully, under God’s mercy.
54. When you fall, get up immediately, and start over.
55. Get help when you need it, without fear, or shame.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When You Come to Love: Poetry on the Eve of Veteran's Day

This must be my week for all things poetic. After the amazing spiritual writing workshop on Saturday, led by the poet and prose writer, Scott Cairns, I found myself returning to Oxford again on Tuesday night, this time for “Harvest Writers Reading” at Roosters Blues House on the Square. In addition to the fact that they raised lots of money (and received canned goods) for a local food bank and the national organization, Share our Strength, which works to feed hungry children across the country, the evening was, well, magical. Danielle Sellers, volunteer organizer for the event, posted this on Facebook after the evening:

“Thank you to everyone who came the to event tonight. It was a great success. We made over 300 dollars for hunger relief and I have a truck full of cans which will be delivered to The Pantry in the morning. Good work Oxford! And thanks to all who made the drive down from Memphis!”

While I very much enjoyed the readings of my friends and mentors, Beth Ann Fennelly, her husband, Tom Franklin, and Jack Pendarvis, it was my introduction to Ann Fisher-Wirth that made the evening so magical for me. Ann is a Professor of English at the University of Mississippi, and Beth Ann Fennelly considers her a mentor. Their friendship is obvious in Ann’s volume of poetry, “Five Terraces,” which include a poem dedicated to Beth Ann: “Sphinx, Star-Gazer, Mountain: Leading yoga. For Beth Ann Fennelly.” (Ann also teaches yoga. It shows in her body, in her carriage, in her spirit.)

I forgot my camera (if you can believe that) and took a few snapshots with my cell phone, but the quality is so bad that I will spare you. This picture of Ann is from the internet, and it’ s much better than mine. Here’s an interview with her at The Best American Poetry. You can read some of her poetry here.

Ann was an army brat, and I love the poems she read about her military childhood. They seemed especially appropriate on the eve of Veteran’s Day. And after the readings were over, when I went downstairs to leave Rooster’s, I was stopped in my tracks by a group of Marines, standing at attention in the downstairs bar, singing The Marines’ Hymn with vigor and reverence. It brought tears to my eyes. Afterwords, I said to one of them, “My son just got to Afghanastan this week. He flies helicopters for the Army.”

“Tell him we’ll be joining him as soon as we can, ma’am. We’ll have his back.”

I gave him a hug, and then looked around at the circle of young men with crew cuts and shining faces. They were beautiful young men, all of them. And I wept as I left the restaurant and got into my car to drive home to Memphis.

The next day I picked up Ann’s volume, Five Terraces, and found a few of the poems she had read the night before. The one that I found myself returning to again today is called, “When You Come to Love.” I hope I’m not infringing on any copyright laws by sharing it here, and I hope it will inspire my readers to find this book, and others of Ann’s, and buy them and enjoy them for yourself. Or give them as Christmas gifts to people you love. I’ll close with

When You Come to Love

by Ann Fisher-Wirth

When you come to love,
bring all you have.

Bring the milk in the jug,
the checked cloth on the table—
the conch that sang the sea
when you were small,
and your moonstone rings,
your dream of wolves,
your woven bracelets.

For the key to love is in the fire’s nest,
and the riddle of love is the hawk’s dropped feather.

Bring every bowl and ewer,
every cup and chalice, jar,
for love will fill them all-

And, dazzled with the day,
fold the sunlight in your sheets,
fold the smell of salt and leaves,
of summer, sweat, and roses,
to shake them out when you need them most,

For love is strong as death.