Friday, February 27, 2009

The Best of Pen & Palette: August 2007-February 2008

It’s Friday. Like Casual Friday. Or Open Line Friday. Or I Don’t Want To Spend All My Creative Juices Writing A Blog Post Friday. (I’m saving them for real work today… crafting an essay to submit to a writing conference.) But let not your hearts be troubled, ‘cause I’ve got some treats for you. (Just a little of this and a little of that, so don’t bother watching for a thread here.)

First of all, do you know about TinyURL? It’s amazing…. in two seconds it turns a long URL into a tiny one that doesn’t take up so much space on your Twitter blips or anywhere else. Just go to the website and do what they say. Seriously, only takes two seconds.

Second goodie: (well two-in-one!) Check out Michael Hyatt’s video/demo of the new Kindle 2. I tweeted Michael (on Twitter) to ask if the font on the Kindle 2 was large enough to see while working out on an elliptical machine, and in my tweet I wanted to show my hesitancy to do the whole e-book thing, so I said, “I’m interested, but I really like real books, made out of paper.” His reply? “And I still like candles.” Touche', Michael! Also check out his blog post today about Gmail.

Third goodie: Watch a preview for my favorite show, the new “Saving Grace” episode, which airs at 9 pm. Monday night, March 2, on TNT.

Fourth goodie: Two new "friends" through blogging: I had coffee with Sandi Hughes this morning. We had never met, but Sandi had been following my blog for a while and finally decided to email me. Turns out the IT and Medical Staffing business she and her husband own is right here in midtown, a few blocks from where I live. And from High Pointe Coffee. We had a blast getting acquainted. She and some of her friends are going down to Jackson (Mississippi) for the Sweet Potato Queens festival during the St. Paddy’s Day weekend. Oh, my. And you know, in person Sandi doesn’t seem like the type to be dressed up in tights and green boas prancing down Capital street during a parade. But hey, I only met her today. Check out Sandi’s blog. (I have to say I'm teasing Sandi here... she's totally NOT the type to dress up and dance in the parade!) And I'm sending a shout out to Tim Elhajj, a writer in the Pacific Northwest who found me through a post on Brevity's blog. Tim is also working on a memoir, but has been published in the New York Times, Brevity and other places. He has a great blog himself, Present Tense.

Fifth goodie: a friend put me onto Pandora internet radio . So I’m putting this post together listening to Gillian Welch singing “Elvis Presley Blues.” Nice. Oh, and “When the Angels Call My Name.” Love that one. Peaceful. And “Throw Me a Rope” by KT Tunstall. And “Peace of Mind” by Mindy Smith. And “Jackson” (about Jackson, Missisippi!) by Lucinda Williams. Good stuff.

BREAKING NEWS: As I was about to post, around 6:45 pm., I heard sirens and looked out my front windows and there was a man lying in the street with people standing around him. I saw a shopping cart, broken in pieces, and also sheets of glass lying around. I called out to the people surrounding the man, "Does he need a blanket or anything?"

A A man standing near the victim answered, "No thanks, by the time you get out here with a blanket the ambulence will be here."

I went back inside and waited. 5 minutes later I looked and the ambulence still wasn't there, so I ran outside with a blanket and pillow. I covered the man with a blanket, and he thanked me, and lifted his head for me to put a pillow under it on the cold, wet pavement. He was lying on his side, not moving. It was raining, and the temperature was dropping. I asked if he needed anything else, but before he could answer, one of the men standing nearby said, "here comes the ambulence now." So I went back up on my porch and watched as the EMT guys assessed the situation and loaded him onto the ambulence.
I went back down my driveway into the street and picked up the blanket and pillow and came back inside to watch from my front windows. A tow truck arrived, but I didn't see a car that needed towing. 3-4 police cars were on the scene, with cops hopping out of cars and talking to eachother and the 5-6 people standing around the place the man had been lying. He must not be critical, because the ambulence sat there for about 20 minutes before leaving the scene. Two police cars with blue lights flashing stayed on the scene for a few more minutes, and by 7:30, everyone was gone. And the broken shopping cart has been taken away. I can't help but wonder if he was homeless. I stood in my dining room, where my icons are, saying prayers for this man who was struck down by a car in front of my house on this Friday night. Lord have mercy.

And finally, I decided to go through the 253 posts I’ve put on Pen and Palette since it’s inception in August of 2007 and choose my favorites. Later I’ll put links to them on my blog site permanently… over there… on the left. But that might take a while (I’m really really not a techy) so for now you can just click on any of them that interest you, right here. (Below) I’ve put some of them in groups, by topics. Others are random. Have a great weekend, everyone!

The Best of Pen & Palette (August 2007 – February 2009)

Orthodoxy and Iconography
Dashing Our Thoughts Against the Presence of God February 2009
The Lenten Triodion and Prelude to Spring February 2009
The Angels Vs. the Shadow Government January 2009
Shepherds are Playing December 2008
Fashion and the Inner Life October 2008
Windows to Heaven: St John VBS July 2008
Keeping the Reader Safe June 2008
The Holy Spirit Day June 2008
Wet Jesus and a Strange Mix of Art and Iconography June 2008
The End of Art? May 2008
Triple Threat or Hat Trick? May 2008
Behold Your Mother May 2008
Christ is Risen! April 2008
Holy Saturday April 2008
Holy Friday April 2008
Dying Eggs on Holy Thursday April 2008
Angels of the Lord, Finished! March 2008
Gabriel’s Day March 2008
Forgiveness Sunday and Kites on Clean Monday March 2008
More Windows to Heaven February 2008
Holy Water January 2008
Icons Will Save the World December 2007
What is this Great and Strange Wonder? December 2007
The Books of the Illiterate December 2007
Beginning to Pray November 2007
Feasts, Four-Year-Olds and Forefathers November 2007
Patmos, Island of the Apostle of Love October 2007
Farewell to Athens, Discovoring Leros October 2007
More Random Acts of Filoxenia October 2007
Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants September 2007
Beauty Will Save the World August 2007

Writing and Misc.
Transcending Art December 2008
The Other Side of Civilitiy November 2008
The Other Woman November 2008
Super-Sized Enlightenment November 2008
Writing Out Loud: Your Brain on Blog October 2008
Southern Writers on the River September 2008
The Sometimes Lonely Journey of Poets Pilgrim & Writers September 2008
Iodine, Trappings, and Pretty Southern Women September 2008
White Coats and Promises August 2008
Are These My People? July 2008
Camp Square Books July 2008
Blocked July 2008
Learning to See and Write Sunsets June 2008
Turning Experiences into Words March 2008
A Second Helping: Writing on Writing January 2008
Once You Know Where True Is December 2007
Letting Go November 2007
Creative Nonfiction: Raising the Craft to an Art September 2007
Slow Water Traveling Through Fertile Land September 2007
These Are My People August 2007


The Tinderbox April 2008
Bad Girls and Princesses April 2008
The Imperfect Peace April 2008
A Soft Opening May 2008
A Fan of Beth Ann April 2008

Effie (my mother)

Effie at Eighty-One February 2009
BingoDecember 2008
Long Distance Caregiving November 2008
The Purse November 2008
If Mama Ain’t Happy November 2008
Unhappy Chairs September 2008
Piece of Mind November 2007

“Watching” -- Posts about a friend’s dying

Watching, Dancing and Fishing October 2007
Catch and Release October 2007

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mixed Signals

This afternoon I drove my cat to the Vet for her regular pedicure. Actually, it’s a $3 (yes!) claw trim. Oreo is close to 20 years old, and this is the only “treatment” she gets at the Vet. Just saying. As I left the neighborhood, I saw these gorgeous daffodils, just around the corner from our house. And then, driving down North Parkway was a study in contrasts. The sky was dark, with an overlay of melting, sun-dappled clouds. The trees on the median (boulevard?) were all dead—some still had dry, brown leaves hanging from them, others were bare. But all along the boulevard, between the dead trees, clusters of bright yellow daffodils were in full bloom!
So, who didn’t get the memo? Spring is here? In February? But the trees are budless and the ground is yielding golden daffodils. It seems that Mother Nature has sent out Mixed Signals and her children are responding in kind. Or not.

It reminded me of the replies I’ve gotten from various literary agents since I started sending our queries last May. Yes, I’ve been at it for nine months, this quest for literary representation for my book. And I’m really thankful that most of the rejections have not been form letters or worse, photocopied pieces of paper, about 2 ½ inches X 8 ½ inches, like strips cut from a single sheet. (I’ve gotten one of those. It’s pretty demoralizing)
But the Mixed Signals come in the verbage. When an agent says things about my work like “Your story is a remarkable one, and the stuff memoirs are made of,” and then goes on to say, “I didn’t see a cohesive, overarching narrative frame that tied it all together,” and other discouraging words, I feel like the daffodils. Is it time to come out, or not? So, does this mean I’ve got a good idea but can’t execute it?

The most recent letter was really disheartening. And yes, there was the 2.5 X 8.5 photocopied rejection slip, but on the back, the agent said, among other personal comments, “Despite your impressive marketing support, I found the story at times familiar…. While it is certainly your unique story, I encourage you to reflect upon the wider world, i.e. other women similarly challenged.”

So which is it, “familiar” or “unique”? “Remarkable” or “incohesive”? Mixed messages for sure. But hey, there are other fish in the sea, and I press on. And just in time for my pressing on efforts, two wonderful tools arrived in my mailbox this week:

First, the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It’s always useful, and this issue didn’t disappoint. Once I make it through the cover stories, like “Premier Editors: How They Decide Which Books to Buy and What They Never Tell Authors,” I find my way to the more helpful stuff, like Michael McGregor’s column for “The Literary Life” section: “Green-Haired Gunshoes or Hidebound Hacks?” Translation for my non-writing readers: Creative Nonfiction vs. Journalism. McGregor quotes from and refers to Dinty Moore and Lee Gutkind, both mentors of mine at Creative Nonfiction (workshops, conferences) and makes good points about memoir and personal essay (my two genres):

“‘ memory has its own story to tell.’ (Tobias Wolff) The same can be said of the personal essay, which by nature offers a deeply subjective view of things, no matter how many facts it employs….” McGregor talks about Moore “favoring form over content” and introducing a third form of creative nonfiction (in addition to memoir and essay)—“Literary journalism…. Which usually focuses outward, on an event, location, or person the author finds worthy of careful examination” Not a format I’m interested in, but one that is growing in popularity, for sure. I'm not doing a great job of reviewing the article, so please check it out yourself!

The next journal to arrive in my mailbox this week is Creative Nonfiction #36. On the cover I read the words, “Points of Entry: Choosing a story’s best beginning” and was encouraged to follow a link to a special online supplement and join the discussion, which I did, here. The entire issue is like taking a writing course in finding a good beginning. Great stuff, Lee! Kudos!

Okay, I just have to say that if this post seemed a bit disjointed, it was “assembled” while watching American Idol and “tweeting” about each contestant, here. Lots of fun. I voted for Megan, who designs fonts (yes!) as her day job, and did a unique presentation of “Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae.

Enough TV, Twitter, and Blogger. Time for a good book! G’nite all!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fourth Foto: Tag! You're It!

Okay, I have to admit I don’t get this whole thing about getting tagged and 4th photos, but I’ll play along. Evidently Caitlyn “tagged” me in her blog post from February 20 which means that I’m supposed to post the 4th photo from the 4th folder in my picture folders and “write a story” about the photo. (I just happened to read her blog post last night or I woudn’t have known I had been tagged. Did something break down in the system here?)

And this 4th photo thing is kinda’ random, don’t you think? But here goes. By the way, my (hundreds of) photo folders are in alphabetical order, not chronological. And the first four are by dates rather than by ABCs, so the 4th folder happens to be “2007 Christmas Card Pix.”

And the 4th photo is this one. The irony is that one of the other folks Caitlyn tagged is Claire, and believe it or not, this is a photo of Claire working on an icon of the Mother of God at an icon workshop I was teaching at St. John back in 2007. How’s that for a coincidence?

I used a grouping of students working on icons for our 2007 Christmas card design that year.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t so random. I really need to schedule a date for Kerry to come over and help me finish up the two large icons she and I have been working on for the nave at St. John for a long time. We agreed to finish them during Lent, which starts on March 2, so maybe this whole “tag you’re it” and “4th photo” thing was a way of reminding me.But I still want to know who started this whole thing. And now I’m supposed to tag someone? Someone with a blog, right? Okay, here goes.

I tag Mindy, who hasn’t posted on her blog in over a month, so now she’s got a topic! So, I could just wait until she happens to read this post, or I could send her an email with a link so she’ll know she’s been tagged. Yep, that sounds like a plan. So, I guess we can all check her blog over the next few days to see what the 4th photo in her 4th photo album happens to be.

“Last tag! No more tags!” (I’m really too old for this….)

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Little Gym

Yesterday afternoon my husband and I went to our six-year-old Goddaughter's birthday party, at The Little Gym. What an amazing place. For an hour and a half, twenty or so six-year-olds play on safe gymnastic equipment, do games with a giant parachute, balls, bubbles and more, while the parents just kick back and watch.

Where was The Little Gym when my kids were growing up? I can remember spending weeks preparing for birthday parties. The most complex was the time a friend and I took our two boys (they were sharing a birthday party) and two station wagons full of friends to the Civil War park in Vicksburg, Mississippi (we were living in Jackson) for their own reinactment. There were soldiers and medics and spies and nurses and everything. What were we thinking?

At The Little Gym, you just show up. And the kids have a blast. Chek out the pictures. I love these of Sophie in the center of her friends.

Can you tell she's not shy?

She and two of her friends had a great time on the uneven bars.

Four-year-old sister Izabelle lands a vault.

While Maya is intrigued by the bubble machine.

The giant parachute was fun to watch, as they tried to toss balls out of the center. And eventually Sophie got to be in the middle. I tried to download my video of this but couldn't figure it out this time for some reason.
Anyway, thanks for inviting us, Sophie, and Happy Birthday! We love you!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

One Hour Home Makeover Leaves Time for Twitter!

Okay, so I dropped another ball. I’ve tried to keep three of them in the air at the same time since the New Year began—exercise, organize, write—all elements of Operation Order Out of Chaos. If you’ve been following my blog, you already know that I dropped one of them—exercise—early in the race because I got sick. Even while I was sick I kept up the writing and uncluttering/organizing, somehow. (If you’re new to my blog, you can catch up on posts about the organizing progress here.)

But I’m not sick any more, so this past week I started back working out, if only doing the minimum 20 minutes on the elliptical machine 3 times a week. At least I’m there. And the writing is really moving along well, on several fronts, including new chapters of the memoir and more essays being published. But—BAM! What was that? The sound of another ball hitting the floor, and this time it’s the unclutter/organize ball. Yes, it’s been over a week since I’ve done anything in the realm of organization around here, and its starting to bother me—especially the half-finished guest room closet.

Oh, maybe this counts: I did my mother’s income taxes last week. And that involved filing her business mail from the past several months, creating 2009 file folders, making lots of copies, and filling out worksheets for her/our accountant. So, can I let that count for last week’s organizational activity? Please?

And maybe the conversation I had with my husband this week about things we want to do to get our house ready to sell (about a year from now) counts as organizing—renovating the master bathroom, new carpet in the guest room and upstairs rooms, new (or repaired) roof, etc. We’ll get bids soon and get some of this started. So, who has time to actually organize when there’s so much to discuss? Well… here are three sources I’ve found with helpful hints, so if you’re also trying to bring order out of chaos in your home (or work life) check these out:

One-hour home makeover tips
Quick Change Artists
And the Unclutter Blog. That last one, the Unclutter Blog, had a post about organizing your work day that was inspirational. But I think I’m only inspired to sit back and admire this person’s organizational goals. I have to be a little more free-flowing than that. In fact, their schedule kind of scares me. Like what if I’m on a roll with my writing and—DING!—the schedule says it’s time to move on to something else? Or what if I’m waiting on an important email and don’t want to wait until 1 pm or 5 pm for the next scheduled “Check Email” slot? No, I don’t think that one works for me, but hey—to each his own!

Take today—right now—it’s Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. and the three things on my Saturday Afternoon Schedule are: Grocery Shop, Shop for birthday gift for Goddaughter’s party tomorrow, and cook for tomorrow’s potluck at church. Those three activities will probably take 3-4 hours, so I should begin soon. Now, actually. But… I’m enthralled in (an unpublished) book manuscript a friend just shared with me and I can’t put it down (which is a good thing, for the writer!) and also intrigued by two magazine articles I found the other day and just allowed myself time to read with my coffee this morning. So… I’m thinking I can leave on the errands at 2:30 or 3 and still have time to cook. That way I have time to chat about the magazine articles:

“Facebook is for Old People,” by Lev Grossman, in Time Magazine’s February 23 issue. I cracked up when I first saw the article, because all three of our kids are on Facebook, but I’ve never even checked it out. And why not? Because it was created by a Harvard student for other college students. And I’m 57 (almost 58) years old, so I think I’m a little too old to go there, you know? (cartoon from Time Magazine.)

Oh, it’s not that I haven’t been invited! Several writing buddies have invited me to be their “friend” on Facebook, and most of them are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, which isn’t quite as weird as fifty-somethings being on there. Like "Mr. Smith" (name has been changed to protect the innocent.) Here’s how I found out: our daughter was living at home last summer, and one day she said, “Hey, Mom. Mr. Smith invited me to be his friend on Facebook.”

“Mr. Smith? You mean George Smith?” (remember the name has been changed, but this is someone I know well.)

“Yeah. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I’m not sure I want him reading my stuff, and like, why is he on there?”

So I ask Mr. Smith what the deal is and he claims he’s on there to “keep an eye on his kids’ Facebook pages.”

“And how does asking my 26-year-old daughter to be your ‘friend’ help you do that?”

No good answer.

You know what, I don’t want to see my kids’ Facebook pages. I know, they are 26, 27 and 31 and maybe I’d feel differently if they were 15 or so, but then we’d have that whole war over why 15-year-olds are on something created for college kids? I just wish that Mark Zuckerberg and his smart buddies had fixed it so you had to have some sort of i.d. to get in, that shows you’re between the ages of 17 and 30, or so. But that’s just me. According to Grossman's article, it turns out Zuckerberg and company need old people on there to “fulfill its ultimate destiny.” If I was a twenty-something on Facebook and saw it being taken over by my parents and their friends, I think I’d want to go somewhere else. And maybe that’s happening. Grossman says, “There was a time when it was cool to be on Facebook. That time has passed. Facebook now has 150 million members, and its fastest-growing demographic is 30 and up. At this point it’s way cooler not to be on Facebook. We’ve ruined it for good, just like we ruined Twilight and skateboarding.”

So, where are the cool kids hanging out now? Maybe at Twitter, according to an article by Will Leitch in the February 16 issue of New York Magazine called "The Boys of Twitter."
(That's Biz Stone and Evan Williams at Twitter--photo by Hugh Kretschmer for New York Magazine.) The other day my husband asked me what Twitter was, and I wasn’t really able to give him a good answer. But here it is, in Leitch’s article:

“It allows you to post text messages to the web. You have a 140-character limit per posting, and you can “follow” other users … and they can “follow” you. It’s kind of like Facebook’s status updates, but available for anyone to see.”

So, why go there, if Twitter only has about 6 millions users, compared with Facebook’s 150 million? Founded by Stone Williams and Jack Dorsey, Twitter “lowers the bar.” “It’s the logical next step from blogging…. It’s streamlining information.” Williams goes on to say, “I’ve come to really believe that if you make it easier for people to share information, more good thing happen.” And this coming from the man who created the Blogger platform. Yeah, he actually invented the term, “blogger.” But he started Twitter for fun, and now suddenly the media is calling it the “Next Big Thing.”

Okay, so I just created my Twitter account and posted my first comments. And my mug shot (at right). Took all of about 10 minutes and now I have six million new friends. I can feel the love. Won’t you join me? It’s much more fun than grocery shopping….

Friday, February 20, 2009

Effie at Eighty One

Today is my mother’s birthday. She’s eighty-one.

This is Mom when she was eleven years old, in 1939.

And this second picture doesn’t have a date on back, but she appears to be about the same age, maybe twelve. I love these pictures of her when she was a little girl. And yes, I see some of myself in her then. And also now.

Here’s my post about her birthday last year when she turned eighty. She was still in the assisted living home then—still clinging to the last bits of independence that she could grasp. But she was happy in her ever-shrinking world, and I hoped against hope that it would last for a few more years.

And then the inevitable happened. In October she fell and broke her hip, and you know the rest of the story. [If you’re new to my blog and want to catch up, check out the posts below. Just click on the title that interests you to read the post. Then close it and return to the current post to continue. Thanks for reading!]
Bingo December 2008
Long Distance Caregiving November 2008
The Purse November 2008
If Mama Ain’t Happy November 2008
Unhappy Chairs September 2008
The Good Granddaughter August 2008
Piece of Mind November 2007

I went to visit Mom on Tuesday this week, rather than today, her actual birthday. She has no idea what day it is, but she still lights up when she sees my face. Each time I drive down to Jackson, I wonder if that will be the visit when it happens—when she doesn’t know who I am.

First I stopped at Beemon’s Drugs at Maywood Mart, in my old neighborhood. Beemon’s is one of those old-fashioned drug stores that carries lots of cute gifts and knick-knacks—the perfect place to gather goodies for Mom’s birthday. Into the box went:

Good Housekeeping Magazine (because the pictures are pretty and colorful, and she loves that, even though she no longer reads the articles.)
M & Ms.
Chewing Gum.
A stained-glass cross to hang on her window.
Lipstick and blush-on.
A new comb, brush, and barrettes. (she’s not letting the beautician at the nursing home cut or perm her hair)
A lavender (her favorite color) plastic make-up bag to put the new goodies in.

Next I went across the parking lot to McAllisters to get two giant cookies—her favorites—and included them in the gift box.

Off to Lakeland Nursing Home I went, to find Mom not scooching up and down the halls in her wheelchair, as she usually is, but sitting in her room visiting with her new roommate, Mrs. Jackson, who is 86 and in her right mind. I think. The reason I think so is because she was able to tell me all about her son, her previous situation, and then to tell me that “this is the end of the line for me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean I guess I’ll live here until I die.” She was very matter-of-fact about it. Mom seemed unplussed, as she piddled around with her birthday card and gifts. We had fun, putting on her new lipstick and blush-on and holding up her new mirror so she could see how pretty she looks. (If only my skin would look like hers when I’m 81!)

“We get along pretty well,” Mom said, pointing to Mrs. Jackson. “Come on over here and have some of my birthday candy,” she waved at Mrs. Jackson, who was stretched out on her bed, because her back was hurting.

“No, thank you. I’ve got plenty of candy from Wal Mart,” she pointed to what looked like a display on a candy aisle at any discount store. “I used to work there,” she explained.

I kept asking Mom if she didn’t want to go up to the lobby to visit, thinking she would want to get out of her room for a while.

“No, I’m fine here. Just look at those beautiful trees!” She points out her window to the huge pines on the city park property next door.

“But I need to go to the bathroom,” she said.

“But Mom, you have on a diaper, remember? You just go when you need to and the nurses will clean you up.”

“But she goes to the bathroom on her own sometimes,” Mrs. Jackson interjected.

“Really?” I don’t even try to hide my surprise. “Do the nurses know this?”

“I don’t know, but she goes in there and gets on the toilet sometimes.”

Mia, the head nurse, drops in shortly after this conversation, so I step out into the hall to ask her about it and she says, “Oh, yes. She’s figured out how to unhook the alarm so we don’t know she’s out of her wheelchair. She gets the diaper off and gets herself onto the toilet. Sometimes we have to help her get the diaper back on.”

I’m flabbergasted. “But what if she falls?”

“If she falls, she falls. We’re doing everything we can, short of restraints, which we don’t use here at Lakeland. She’s doing fine.”

Back in Mom’s room, Mrs. Jackson is complaining, “The food here is awful.”

So I look at Mom to see if she agrees, but she’s off on another planet, stroking the ribbon on her birthday gift.

“And the plastic covers on these beds are so hot I wake up sweating at night. Do you think we could get something more comfortable?”

I look at Mom and ask, “Mom, is the bed comfortable enough for you?”

“Oh, yes, it’s fine.” Her eyes have a bit of a glazed-over look, but her smile is full.

“And I can’t seem to get a television in here,” Mrs. Jackson continues. Her son lives in town, so I ask:

“Has your son tried to bring one and get it hooked up? You have to call Comcast a few days ahead of time. But you are welcome to watch Mom’s tv whenever you want to.” I look at Mom.

“I don’t watch it much any more.”

“What about the news. You used to like to watch the news.”

“Yes, sometimes.” There’s a resignation in her voice that’s new.

“Well, it’s okay if Mrs. Jackson wants to watch it, right?”

“Oh, sure! Anytime she wants to.”

“Well, my son will be bringing mine eventually,” Mrs. Jackson says. And he’s going to bring me some pictures for the walls like your mother has. Her walls are bare, whereas Mom's are covered with framed photographs, posters, and a bulletin board filled with labeled pictures. Another bulletin board is covered with cards.

About then Mom is playing with her new makeup, when Mrs. Jackson brings out some liquid foundation makeup from her drawer and offers it to Mom: “This is the wrong shade for me—would you like to try it?”

Mom takes it and smiles, and their eyes meet and for a moment it reminds me of two young girls sharing beauty supplies. Mom hasn’t worn liquid makeup in years, but she says, “I might like to try it some time.” And she puts it in her makeup bag.

When’s it’s time for me to leave, I ask if Mom wants to go up to the lobby to see me off, but she says, “No, I’ll stay here, thank you.”

I kiss her goodbye, and tell her happy birthday again, and as I leave her room, I watch her maneuvering her wheelchair around to the far side of her bed and placing her birthday card in the window with her other cards. I stand and watch to see what she does next, but she doesn’t move… it’s close to sunset, and the deep orange sky behind the increasingly dark trunks of the pine trees is something to behold. And mother would rather look at the sunset through the trees than watch the news on TV. Who can blame her?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Native Daughters Make Good

Tuesday I drove down to Jackson to visit my mother in the nursing home again. Friday will be her (81st) birthday, but I decided to go Tuesday because I wanted to meet fellow Jackson native, Kathryn Stockett, and hear her read from her newly published novel, The Help.
After visiting with Mom, I got to Lemuria Bookstore at 4 for the signing, scheduled to begin at 4:30, and I was about 20th in line. The line continued for an entire hour, but I got books signed for myself and my friend, Jan, (I was spending the night with Jan). After Kathryn signed our books, I got us seats on the 3rd row for the reading, and I’m so glad I got there early because there was standing room only. How wonderful to see the turnout for this native daughter.

When Kathryn finally made it to the reading, she was accompanied by actress Octavia Spencer, who read the part of Minny in several of the readings. Jan and I laughed at the funny parts, and teared up at the poignant and familiar themes of family and race in the town we both grew up in.

Kathryn and Octavia were both animated...

...and did a great job bringing Kathryn's colorful characters to life. It was more of a performance than a book reading.

Back at Jan’s later that night, we talked about the way it was in our own homes and lives in the 1960s in Jackson, and how important “the help” was to our families. We weren’t wealthy, neither of us, but we had a lot more than we realized at the time. Like maids that accompanied us on family vacations to do the cooking and cleaning. Lillie Bell was very significant in my life, as she worked for us full time while my mother taught school, until I was around eight or so. I'm pretty sure that I'm still alive today because of the many times Lillie Bell saved me from certain death at the hands of my brother! Kathryn talks about how she felt about the black woman who worked for her family, here.
I’m looking forward to starting The Help, but I promised myself I would the finish the two other books I’m reading first! I’ll get to it soon! Congratulations, Kathryn, and good luck with your book tour!

Another “native daughter” making good right now is 21-year-old Alexis Grace, who is amongst the 36 finalists in the 8th season of American Idol. …. She’s from Midtown Memphis—graduated from Overton High School in 2005. What an amazing voice coming from such a tiny girl! She looks like a young Dolly Parton, and she’s got a two-year-old daughter, and her fiancĂ© is serving in Iraq right now. What’s not to love?

So I taped last night’s show (since I was out of town) and watched it this afternoon when I got back to Memphis, and then watched the results on tonight’s show. CONGRATULATIONS, Alexis! She made it to the top 12! Check later for news about another Memphian, Lil Rounds, who also made it to the top 36. I think she will be competing in the 3rd group of 12, week after next. Yeah, it’s fun to see native daughters make good—from both of my “home towns! Click on the video below to see more of Alexis Grace.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dashing Our Thoughts Against the Presence of God

My dear friend, Father Paul Yerger of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi, just returned from a clergy symposium—The Diocese of the South (OCA) Pastoral College. In his weekly online bulletin yesterday, Father Paul included the text of Metropolitan JONAH’s talks at the clergy gathering: “Do Not Resent, Do Not React, Keep Inner Stillness.” There’s lots of good stuff in there about forgiving those who have abused you, and the journey/process of prayer, confession, healing, finding inner stillness. It’s a deep and lengthy article, but a wonderful preparation for Great Lent, which Orthodox Christians will enter on March 2, just two weeks from today.

I’m not going to comment very much on the text, since it will take you a while to read it, other than to mention this interesting quote from St. John Chrysostom in the section on inner stillness and how to pray:

“When you pray before your icons, light a candle and then close your eyes!” The icon is a sacrament of the Presence.

I was fascinated by this, since I often lose myself in the images—the icons—before which I pray, sometimes even becoming distracted by the style or other artistic elements of the icon. (This probably happens to me even more because I paint icons, which makes it hard not to notice these elements.) But Met. JONAH reminds us of the icon’s spiritual power, calling it “a sacrament of the Presence.” The Presence of God.

What do we do when we try to be still and our thoughts—especially resentments—invade our minds? Met. JONAH says to “dash our thoughts against the presence of God.” We have a choice. We can choose not to listen to our thoughts during prayer. We can choose to learn stillness in the presence of God. And maybe that stillness will eventually stay with us throughout the day.

I want to believe that God is big enough to take all the thought-dashing that will be coming at Him if I choose to enter into this struggle to find inner stillness. It’s not a new struggle—I’ve been here before, on and off for many years, with varying degrees of “success.” It’s always painful. But sometimes there’s a tiny bit of growth, of maturity, that comes with the struggle. And always there’s this choice of my will to engage in the battle, or not.

Yesterday at church I was discussing this with a friend when I thought about how it’s been two years since I’ve been to the monastery, and yet my mind is busy trying to plan another beach trip. Not that it’s automatic that you can pray, find peace and shut out images and thoughts when you’re at the monastery. In fact, I’ve probably experienced as much or more inner stillness walking on the beach than walking through the woods at the monastery. But there’s something incredibly celestial about being in the church services with the nuns. Like the icons, their lives are a sacrament of the Presence.

The beach. The monastery. Inner peace. Thought-dashing. It’s a lot to consider during these last two weeks before Great Lent.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

That Lovin' Feeling

Happy Valentine’s Day! Whether you’re a sucker for Hallmark or a critic of the day’s cheesy-ness, let’s meet in the middle and just have fun with it. Like these make-your-own-candy-e-hearts that I just discovered. I’m sure there’s a way to order the real thing (like the personalized M&M’s I discovered last Easter) but it’s too late for that, so here are a few I would have made and sent to family and friends if I had thought of it earlier. (I’m sure my daughter is thinking, “But Mom, I can’t eat the e-Puffs!” and I’m thinking “It’s the thought that counts, right?”)

The black one for Oreo (my black and white cat) is supposed to look like a Necro wafer. Yum, can't you just taste it? (Lots of imagination is called for here.)

And what about my man? He went to Rachel’s! (In these depressed economic times, it’s a bargain over Jared’s, and I love flowers, and these are gorgeous!)

Last night a few girlfriends joined me for a little Valentine’s Eve get together, and how cool are these wine glass labels that one of the girls brought?

I know I should have taken pictures last night when everything was fresh and cute rather than this morning when I’m loading the dishwasher and the glasses have the remains of Cosmos and Salty Dogs in them, but hey—you get the picture. And the cream puffs dipped in hot fudge sauce would have made a pretty picture, but, well, too late now. (oink oink!)

My Valentine’s Day gifts to you, my readers, are two pieces of prose—one published and one that didn’t make the cut. And the winner is….my writing buddy (and Ole Miss journalism student) Michelle Bright, (left) columnist for The Daily Mississippian, with her point-on review of the movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You.” You can read Michelle’s column here. Way to go, Michelle! And I’m dying for some of your grandma’s fried chicken!

And now for your free essay. Along with 650 others from around the world I entered Writer’s Digest’s Valentine’s Day contest (“Red Heart: Black Heart”) and didn’t win. Didn’t even make it to the finals. The category I entered was “Essay: Love at First Sight.” 750 word maximum. The winner wasn’t posted as of 11 a.m. today, and the voting is over, but by the time you click on the link, maybe the winner will be announced. But if not, you can enjoy reading the finalists.

But now, I hope you enjoy my essay... with your chocolate. Or flowers. Or Puffs.

That Lovin’ Feeling

It felt like I had been waiting my whole life for this moment, although I was only twenty-six years old. Oh, sure, I had several cases of puppy love when I was young, and quite a few serious adolescent crushes, including one my junior year in high school which actually resulted in marriage two years later. But I wouldn’t say that any of those relationships had begun with love at first sight.

My first crush took some time to evolve. I had known Buster for several years before my interest in his motorized go-cart morphed into curiosity about kissing. And when the first kiss finally arrived—in fifth grade—it couldn’t hold up to the rush of speeding down Hillview Drive with the wind blowing in my hair and the smell of gasoline feeding my ten-year-old thrill-seeking hunger.

Gary came closer to winning my heart in eighth grade, with his disarming good looks and mysterious past. Gary’s family had moved to my hometown in Mississippi, so his status as an outsider added to his mystique. But again, it was never a case of instant infatuation.

My tenth grade romance almost fit the cliché. I met Allen on a bus ride to my first high school football game. Stolen glances turned into introductions and awkward smiles, and when he sat by me on the ride back to school after the game, there were definitely new awakenings in parts of my body that were struggling to make that life-changing transition from girl to woman.

When I met Bill half way through my junior year of high school, he was a sophomore in college. He slayed me with his baby blue eyes, cleft chin and sexy baritone voice. His precursors had all been boys. This was a (nearly)grown man, sweeping me off my feet on our first date—on a sailboat—serenading me with Herb Alpert’s latest hit, “This Guy’s in Love.” But could I know true love when I was only seventeen?

Fast forward nine years to 1977. I was twenty-six years old and in mourning over Elvis’ death in August when the long-awaited phone call came. “Can you be here tomorrow afternoon at 3 p.m.?”

“Tomorrow?—oh, of course!” I stayed up all night, preparing to meet the man of my dreams. After changing clothes three times and fussing over my hair and makeup ’til the last minute, I was finally as ready as I would ever be.

It was only a ten-minute drive, and my heart was pounding as I walked through the front door and into the parlor where Jonathan was waiting for me. I approached him slowly, holding back the rush to embrace. Finally our eyes met, and I completely lost myself in that first look. And then I held him. So this is what love at first sight feels like—like nothing else matters but the connection of two hearts beating as one. When we kissed, it was as if no one else was in the room, or anywhere on Earth, for that matter. But after a few minutes, our pas de deux was interrupted by my husband’s voice: “Can I hold him?”

I reluctantly handed the two-week-old baby boy to my husband of seven years, and turned to exchange a hug with our social worker. She had worked with us for five long years, and now the formal adoption placement was complete. After a little more paperwork, we would be taking our son home with us.

It’s been thirty-one years since the day I fell in love with Jon. My husband and I eventually adopted two more children, but with each of them, we received photographs from orphanages in Korea and had time to bond gradually with their images during the months of waiting for them to arrive. With Jonathan, there was no photograph, no prelude to our first embrace. Love at first sight? Absolutely. But I think it was the kiss that closed the deal.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

FAILING the Inner Artist Test!

Back in 2002, Julia Cameron published a book called The Artist’s Way. I got the book, and worked through the exercises she suggested, including the concept of “morning pages” and making an “artist date” with myself each week for a while—attending art openings, visiting museums, or just letting myself sit by the Mississippi River with a sketch pad or journal and watch the sunset. I think Cameron’s book was instrumental in kick-starting my writing.

So when someone recently sent me a copy of The Artist Within by Whitney Ferre I wondered if she would bring something new to the pursuit of creativity. Ferre lives in Nashville, where she leads corporate seminars, teaches art classes, and serves as a creativity expert on television & radio. Whitney is also an artist, a wife, a mother, and a co-owner of Rumours Wine Bars that build communities around food, wine, and art.

So, last night I opened up my new copy of The Artist Within and worked my way through the first few sections of the book. I say “worked” because, like The Artist’s Way Workbook, Ferre’s book has exercises to do to awaken one’s awareness of the power of the right brain to change every area of a person’s life.

Ferre uses the eight principles of design to teach us “how we visually analyze everything we see.” I took her simple test to discover my strengths and weaknesses, and some of the results were quite surprising. You see, I consider myself to be in touch with my creative side, and I’ve always thought my “artist within” fed the other areas of my life. So, when I scored only 129 out of a possible 200 points in the eight areas of design, bells went off in my head.

“What’s wrong with me?” But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me explain the test:

Ferre’s “life design diagnostic” includes rating yourself using 5 questions pertaining to each of the 8 principles of design. The highest potential score for each section is 25. Here’s how my scores went:

Emphasis: 22 (my highest area, which is all about goals and achieving and order)
Balance: 16
Proportion: 17
Unity: 17
Harmony: 11
Contrast: 17
Rhythm: 14
Repetition: 15

Ferre goes on to say that if your total score was in the range of:
175-200, “you are listening to your artist within!....”
150-174, “you are on your way to being creatively fit….”
125-149, “set the goal to do Creative Exercises each week, but don’t reprimand yourself….” (I was BARELY in this range!)
Under 125, “Don’t feel bad…. You are on the brink of something really fabulous.” Which sounded kinda’ cheesy, but I played along and went to the next section, which was about the design principle that I scored lowest in, Rhythm.

And there was another test. This time I was asked to list the following shapes in order of my favorite to least favorite. Here are the shapes, in order of my preference:
plus sign

The shapes are the 5 Universal Symbols, and the author says this is what they mean: (she tells us this after we rank the symbols, so we aren't swayed by their meaning)

Cirle: Unity
Square: Foundation/Earth Energy/Grounding
Triangle: Goal Oriented/Reaching the top
Plus Sign: Relationships (East v. West/ Night v. Day)
Spiral: Go with the flow.

So I looked at those definitions and thought, hmmmm, interesting that my favorite, the triangle, is about being goal-oriented, which is certainly my strength. And the spiral, my 2nd favorite, is about being flexible, which I’m not, but want to be. My 3rd choice, the plus sign, also indicates something I long for, better relationships. And the 4th and 5th were in the right order, in that my weaknesses are what they represent, grounding (square) and unity (circle.) Just as I was pondering the results, Ferre says to go to page 50 to learn the significance of the order in which I listed my favorite to least favorite shapes. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

Here’s the “key” to my universal symbol survey:

Whichever symbol you listed first, your favorite, symbolizes your goal right now.
Your second favorite symbolizes your hidden strength.
Your third favorite symbolizes what you want your goal to be.
Your fourth favorite symbolizes what you are considering ignoring.
Your least favorite symbolizes what you are unconsciously ignoring.

So, I looked back at my favorites again, considering my choices in the light of these “keys” and it was really quite amazing:

My favorite symbol, the triangle, which represents being goal-oriented, symbolizes my goal right now. (TRUE.)

My second favorite symbol, the spiral, which represents “going with the flow,” symbolizes my hidden strength. (So does that mean I am capable of being flexible, but just haven’t uncovered that strength yet?)

My third favorite symbol, the plus sign, which represents relationships, symbolizes what I want my goal to be. (Now this is point on—I hunger for intimacy in relationships above all else, but I despair of achieving this, so I fill my time with other pursuits. Wow.)

My fourth favorite symbol, the square, which represents earth energy and grounding, symbolizes what I am considering ignoring. (hmmmm I can hear myself arguing with advice from my best friend about this very thing, as she tries to get me in touch with the earth, and myself.)

My least favorite symbol, the circle, which represents unity, symbolizes what I am unconsciously ignoring. (Okay, this is puzzling. If by unity she means connectivity with others, the earth, myself, and all that, I don’t get how I’m unconsciously ignoring that. But if it’s unconscious, how would I know?)

And this is just the first fourth of the book. Not sure if I’ll stick with it or not… but I am little intrigued. Maybe it’s just another rabbit trail on my search for balance. If I discover something amazing in future pages, I’ll get back to you!

But I’d like to “round out” this post with a brief review of another book, The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan. I was fascinated by the title when a friend sent me a link to Corrigan’s memoir, and this link to video of her reading her essay, “Transcending” because a few years ago I spoke at a women’s retreat in Austin, Texas and chose as my topic, “The Middle Way.” My talks at that retreat were about finding balance in our lives as women who are spiritual beings, friends, wives, and mothers.

Kelly’s blog post was in O Magazine last month. So I got a copy of the book and jumped in, just a few days ago. I’m loving it so far. And it’s helpful to read other memoirists’ styles. Kelly uses “the middle place” to mean the place women often find ourselves between childhood and motherhood. Especially when we’re struggling to raise our own kids, take care of ourselves, and often take care of our parents at the same time. Her battle with cancer, and her relationship with her father in particular, highlight her book.

Okay, let’s just make this “Book Review Thursday.” One of the books I list in the “competitive title analysis” section of my book proposal (which I send to agents) is called
Love, Loss and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman. Well, it seems that there’s a new play out based on the book!

I’d love to see it, as I can’t help but invision my own memoir adapted for the stage or screen some day. But Beckerman’s book is a lighter look at the clothes she wore throughout the different stages and events of her life, and I’m not sure my story would adapt well for theater. For now those thoughts are only a distraction, when I need to get back to the goal at hand—drafting the rest of the book. Because I like triangles, remember?