Monday, March 30, 2009

Lunacy: Fact or Fiction? A Dog and His Boy and the Science Fair

The other day my friend, Charli, who used to live in Memphis but moved to the Seattle area over ten years ago, sent me an email with some great news about her thirteen-year-old son, Patrick. He placed first in his age group in the science fair and even made the local news. His project, "Lunacy: Fact or Fiction" was about whether or not the phases of the moon affect human behavior. Patrick obtained a breakdown of disciplinary actions in his school district and matched up the results with the phases of the moon.

It turns out he was right. Students got into more fights and mouthed off more during the full moon. How many more fights or bad-mouths? Patrick said the chance that the correlation was mere coincidence was 2 in 10,000. So, if you're having an unusually rough day with your kids, you might want to check to see if there's a full moon!

So, why is this blogworthy? Two reasons:

First, Patrick is my Godson. I was there with him when he was baptized in October of 1995. But we go back further than that. I was his mother’s labor and delivery coach, and Patrick’s was the first and only birth I have ever witnessed—I even cut the umbilical cord. We were bonded from the beginning. And then a couple of years later his mother remarried and they moved all the way across the country to Seattle. We miss him dearly, but Charli does a great job of keeping us in the loop on his progress. Which brings me to the second reason this story is blogworthy.

Patrick isn’t just any bright kid who won a science fair award. He’s a bright kid with multiple neurological disorders, including Asperger’s Syndrome, who has overcome many obstacles to achieve all that he has.
When he visited Memphis last summer, his service dog, Kudzu, came with him, and enlightened and entertained all of us at St. John, and later at Game Stop and out at lunch at Zinnie’s.

Congratulations to you, Patrick!
We love you and we’re so proud of you!
(oh, and please give Kudzu a hug for us!)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Happy 30th to Square Books & Granta: Oxford Conference for the Book

Yesterday I drove down to Oxford for the final afternoon of the Oxford Conference for the Book . I was concerned that I might miss part of it as I headed out of Memphis on I-240 and came upon a traffic jam just before hitting I-55 South. As I inched forward, along with dozens of other motorists merging into a single lane, I finally saw the cause—this wreck. One car had landed on top of another! Two fire trucks, two ambulances and several police cars were on the scene, and several people were sitting in the grass beside the underpass. No one seemed to be hurt, unless I had already missed another ambulance transferring folks to the hospital. Fortunately the traffic jam only lasted ten minutes, and I was safely back on my way to Oxford. (okay, my inner blog critic is saying this is boring and has nothing to do with this post, that it would be more appropriate for Twitter, and maybe so, but it's here now so if you're bored with it, hopefully you just skipped down to the good stuff.)

Although there was an amazing group of speakers and panelists scheduled for the conference, I was only able to make it for Saturday afternoon’s events:

2:00 p.m. “Reviewing Books in Cyberspace”: J. Peder Zane, moderator; John Freeman, Haven Kimmel, Lydia Millet

3:00 p.m. Readings and Remarks: Lyn Roberts, moderator; Jack Pendarvis, John Pritchard, Steve Yarbrough

4:00 p.m. “News, Novels, and the Sport of Books”: Richard Howorth, moderator; Leonard Downie, John Freeman, and Terry McDonell

6:00 p.m. Marathon Book Signing and Party Celebrating Granta & Square Books: 30 Years of American Literature at Off Square Books

The 2 p.m. panel included John Freeman, former president of the National Book Critics Circle and new American editor of the British literary journal, Granta. (John’s first book, The Tyranny of E-mail, will be released by Simon & Schuster on October 13.) It was great to meet John and talk with him about the kind of writing he’s looking to publish in future issues of Granta.

But I was sad to find out when I got there that Haven Kimmel had to cancel at the last minute (as did Lydia Millet) for personal reasons. I’m a huge fan of Kimmel, having read both of her memoirs (more than once) and all of her novels. And I was also looking forward to meeting Lydia Millet. Since Millet couldn’t come, I read her interview on Bookslut when I got home, much to John Freeman’s probable chagrin. I say that because during the 2 pm panel on “Reviewing Books in Cyberspace,” Freeman expressed concerns about random bloggers reviewing books vs. legitimate literary critics’ reviews. He even mentioned Bookslut. Both Freeman and Peder Zane, book review editor and books columnist for the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and editor of The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, raised the question, “Who do we trust?” in this new age where anyone with a blog can review a book. While critics were once an elite group, in a time when there was an overarching critic dialogue going on, the new voices of critics are often boring, but many are taking a less elitist tact—speaking directly to readers.

(Ouch. I’m one of those random bloggers who likes to review books on my blog. I’ve even been asked to review a few books, by a small press in Tennessee, and I enjoy the occasional review and Q&A with authors, like this one with Haven Kimmel, and this one with John Floyd, whose works I want to promote. I know I only get about 200 hits a day, but hey, John, I try not to be boring.)

Panelist Lyn Roberts, manager of Square Books in Oxford, says that booksellers act as a filter, making personal recommendations based on the customer’s interests. She compared the relationship of booksellers and their customers to our democratic republic type government—we choose people in the know to represent us. That’s what knowledgeable booksellers can also do for readers. Her comments reminded me of an experience I had at another independent bookstore, Burke’s Books in Memphis, this past December. I went in to buy some books as Christmas gifts, but I was stumped on what to get for one of my sons. “Who are some of his favorite authors?” one of the store’s employees asked me. I mentioned a few and we discussed his tastes and interests, and she made a recommendation. That’s a helpful filter.

The 3 p.m. panel, “Readings and Remarks,” included readings by three authors with Mississippi connections. I especially enjoyed Steve Yarbrough’s reading, from Visible Spirits, which he wrote while serving as Grisham writer in residence in 1999-2000.

And I was also encouraged by John Pritchard (who lives in Memphis) who has wanted to write “a big beautiful book about the South” since he was 57. Now he’s 71 and published his first book at 68—I’m “only” 58, but sometimes I feel old as I continue working on the three or four books I’d like to publish. Here’s an interview Pritchard gave for Mississippi Public Broadcasting about his character, Junior Ray Loveblood, and his books, Junior Ray and Yazoo Blues (which isn't about music.)

Jack Pendavris was entertaining, as always.

The 4 p.m. panel was chaired by Square Books owner, Richard Howorth. Panelists were Leonard Downie, who retired as executive editor at the Washington Post last year and has written a novel, The Rules of the Game; Terry McDonell, editor of the Sports Illustrated Group (he has also written for one of my favorite TV shows, “China Beach”), and John Freeman (from the 2 p.m. panel.) Each gave upbeat, optimistic takes on the industry, and Downie closed out the day with a reading from his new novel.

It was fun to meet Downie and his lovely wife later at the 30th Birthday Party celebration for Square Books and Granta. Mrs. Downie works with the Head Start program in the DC area, where they live.

Richard and Lyn hosted the party...

... complete with cake, champagne, appetizers and an open bar.

It was fun to visit with old friends, like Jere Hoar, who graciously hosted my delightful birthday coffee at his home on March 8.and Neil White, whom I met a year ago when he helped organize the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford. (Neil has been generous with his time and talent, aiding me in putting together the book proposal for my memoir-in-progress.) Neil’s first book, The Outcasts, will launch in June—watch for an advanced review and schedule of his signing on my blog the first of June! (Yes, John, another amateur book review will be featured here.)

And to meet new folks, like Duvall, (I don’t know if I spelled her name correctly) a darling young Ole Miss grad student at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, who was a Tri-Delt at Rhodes College…. We discovered both connections (Memphis and Tri-Delt) while she was assisting with my purchase at the cash register, and of course we had to commemorate the bond with another Kodak moment.

Back in Memphis, I opened the New York Times this morning and with much joy read that fellow Jackson author, Kathryn Stockett’s, novel The Help, is #16 on the NYT Book Review today! It was reviewed by the Times on February 18. And I had the pleasure of meeting Kathryn and hearing her read, with actress Octavia Spencer, at Lemuria Books in Jackson last month. Kudos, Kathryn!

While downloading my photos for this post, I couldn’t help but share this one, unrelated to the book conference, but just a parting shot—it’s my mother bird who is nesting three feet from the front door of our house.

She built her nest on top of this column last week. I can’t wait to hear her babies chirping as I gently slip out the door to get the mail and the newspapers each day. (We use our back door to access our cars.) Sometimes she flies to the safety of the nearby tulep tree when we come out the door. But sometimes she just watches us and sits still, guarding her eggs. New life. Hope springs eternal, for mother birds in spring, and for this budding author and lover of beautiful writing. I’ve got a couple of exciting projects in the works, so stay tuned. And I have another essay being published online this week, so watch for the link soon. Oh, and if you happen to be a peacock lover, like me, check this out.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Borrowing Tongues: The Perils of Writing Regional Dialect

Recently a group of eight writers from one of my writing critique groups did a writing exercise together. I call it “progressive flash fiction.” I started the story with a short paragraph, and then each writer added a paragraph or two and it continued for 2-3 rounds through all eight writers. (I say 2-3 rounds because a couple of people were too busy to contribute all three times, so we skipped them.) We just kept adding to the email thread and hitting “reply all” so we could all follow the story line as it developed. It was lots of fun, but at the end, when I asked how everyone would feel about me publishing it on my blog, several people were hesitant. Turns out they had concerns that some of the dialect might be offensive to our black readers and friends. Of course none of us intended that, and I certainly respect my fellow writers’ opinions, so I didn’t publish the story. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week.

The story was set, by the second writer in the first round, in New Orleans. So, several of the writers used dialect we thought to be appropriate to the region. But it was “flash fiction,” so we didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and the finished product, which was indeed a rough first draft, could certainly use lots of editing. And the dialect could be brought down a notch. But we were writing from our gut instincts as Southerners who have grown up and lived in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. And we certainly meant no disrespect.

So, I decided to take a look at how several Southern writers have handled dialect in their work, starting with the most contemporary example I could think of.
Fellow Jackson, Mississippi, native, Kathryn Stockett, and African American actress, Octavia Spencer, did a dramatic reading from Stockett’s new novel, The Help, at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson recently. I brought my signed copy of the book home and devoured it immediately, savoring her colorful descriptions of time, place and people during the turbulent racial unrest of the 1960s South.

I went back through Stockett’s book to see how she handled the dialect, between the white women and their black maids, and between the black maids themselves. Here’s an example of a conversation between Aibileen, one of the maids, and a black man doing work on her employee’s property. The chapter is written in Aibileen’s voice, so even the narrative is written in dialect:

… they’s a knock at the back door. I open it to see one a the workmen standing there. He real old. Got coveralls on over a white collar shirt.

"Hidee, ma’am. Trouble you for some water?" he ask….

"Sho nuff,’ I say…. ‘How ya’ll coming along?" I ask.

"It’s work,” he say. Still ain’t no water to it. Reckon we run a pipe out yonder form the road."

"Other fella need a drink?" I ask.

"Be mighty nice." ….

"Beg a pardon," he say, "but where…" He stand there a minute, look down at his feet.
"Where might I go to make water?"

This is just a short sample, but there’s dialect all through the book, and I can’t help but believe that successful black actress, Octavia Spencer, who has over 100 television and movie credits to her name, must not have been offended by it, since she has chosen to join Stockett on her book tour and read the parts of the “colored help” while Stockett reads the white women’s parts.

A much older example is Their Eyes Were Watching God, the 1937 novel and the best-known work by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston.

Here’s a sample, from the article, “Use of the Southern Black Vernacular in Their Eyes Were Watching God” :

"The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

De’ lake is comin’!’ Tea Cake gasped."

This excerpt from Zora Neale Hurston’s book, Their Eyes Were watching God, is an example of her amazing writing. She makes us feel as if we are actually in her book, through her use of the Southern Black vernacular and admirable description. Her characters are realistic and she places special, well thought out sentences to keep us interested. Zora Neale Hurston’s art enables her to write this engaging story about a Southern black woman’s life. Mrs. Hurston uses Southern Black dialect through out the book. This is appropriate because all of the dialog is between Blacks who grew up in the deep South. Some authors that write in a dialect totally confuse their readers. However, Mrs. Hurston’s writing does not confuse us at all. One particular example of this is on page 102. Tea Cake starts off saying, "‘Hello, Mis’ Janie, Ah hope Ah woke you up.’ ‘Yo sho did, Tea Cake. Come in and rest yo’ hat. Whut you doin’ out so soon dis mornin’?’" Janie replied. This dialog is easily to understand. The reader really gets the feeling of the speech because reading it is just like listening to it.

But Hurston was criticized for her use of dialect, and she was writing about her own people. The following comments, from an analysis in an article in Wikipedia address the issue of whether or not writing in this dialect is disrespectful or condescending to a race or group of people:

The book, written in black southern vernacular, has attracted criticism also by those[who?] who claim it portrays African Americans as ignorant (though Hurston herself is African American). Similar criticisms have been leveled at Twain's Huckleberry Finn. But while Twain transforms the minstrel into a three-dimensional character, viewed through Huck's revelations, Hurston uses black southern dialect to show that complex social relationships and common feats of metaphoric language are possible in something considered "substandard" to English.

The phonetically-written speech of the African Americans in the novel not only gives context but also helps round out the aesthetic of the novel. While Hurston has been criticized for being condescending to her own people, a more critical analysis of the novel and the author reveals an earnest attempt at authenticity. Rather than appearing patronizing, the frequent dialogue is indeed the most oft-quoted and engrossing-- often, as well, the most telling and philosophical.

To get a bit more technical about the dialect itself, I went to Dr. Goodword’s “Glossary of Quaint Southernisms.” In the introduction Dr. Goodword says:

We all speak with the accent of the region we are raised in during the critical language learning period from 2 to 6 years of age. Your accent has nothing at all to do with intelligence or knowledge of the rules of grammar. It is simply a regional dialect and dialects are equally grammatical; they are simply slight variations in the grammar of a given language that characterize the various regions where that language is spoken.
(To read his glossary, click on this link.)

Lastly, here’s a lengthy excerpt from “Linguistics 201: The Dialects of American English.” that addresses Black English, pidgin, creole, Cajun French, and Gulluh: (It's a long excerpt, so if this is too much information for you, just scroll down to my closing paragraph.)

Black English developed in the Southern states when speakers of dozens of West African languages were abruptly forced to abandon their native tongues and learn English. Slaves from different tribes couldn't communicate with one another--in fact, masters deliberately tried to separate slaves who could speak the same language. Since the Africans had to communicate with one another, as well as with the whites, a kind of compromise language evolved on the basis of English and a mixture of the original West African languages. Such a makeshift, compromise language, used as a second language by adults, is known as a pidgin. When a pidgin becomes the native language of the next generation, it becomes a creole--a full-fledged language. The African-English creole in the American colonies evolved into today's Black English.
Black English was most influenced by the speech of the southern whites.

Features carried over from early Southern English into Black English:
--loss of final consonants, especially sonorants: po(or), sto(re) like aristocratic southern English.
-- use of double negatives, ain't, as in early English.
--loss of ng: somethin', nothin', etc.

Black English, in turn, gradually influenced the speech of southern whites--especially the children of the aristocratic slave owners. Given the social prejudices of the Old South, this seems paradoxical. However, remember that throughout all the slave owning areas, black nannies helped raise white children, and the children of blacks and whites played freely together before the Civil War. Since language features acquired in early childhood tend to be kept throughout life, Southern English naturally became mixed with Black English.

Let's look more closely at how Black English developed on the basis of West African Dialects. Whenever a group of adults is forced to learn a second language, the language learned retains many features of the original native language. Thus, the English of black slaves retained many features that were African and not present in English at all. The children of the slaves learned this form of English as their native language. Thus, on the basis of language mixing, a new dialect, called a creole, was born. This process--at least in some small degree-- characterizes the English of all Americans whose parents spoke English as a second language. But in the case of African Americans, due to the social separation they lived under from the very start, the differences were stronger and more lasting.

Main features carried over from West African languages.
--No use of the linking verb 'to be' or generalization of one form for it.
--emphasis on aspect rather than tense: He workin' (right now) vs. He be workin'. This is found in many West African languages.
--I done gone (from Wolof doon , the completive verb aspect particle + English 'done').
--Regularization of present tense verb conjugation: He don't, he know it.
--voiced th in initial position becomes d: dis, dey; in medial position it becomes v: brother > brovva. final voiceless th = f with =wif

A large number of West African words came into Standard American through the medium of Black English: bug (bugu = annoy), dig (degu/ understand), tote bag (tota = carry in Kikonga), hip (Wolof hepicat one who has his eyes wide open), voodoo (obosum, guardian spirit) mumbo jumbo (from name of a West African god), jazz (? Bantu from Arabic jazib one who allures), banjo (mbanza?), chigger (jigger/ bloodsucking mite), goober (nguba /Bantu), okra (nkruman/ Bantu), yam (njami/ Senegal), banana (Wolof). Also, the phrases: sweet talking, every which way; to bad-mouth, high-five are from Black English--seem to be either American innovations or loan translations from West African languages.

The speech of African Americans gradually became more like the speech of their southern white neighbors--a process called decreolization. (And the speech of the whites became slightly more like that of the blacks). However, in a few areas, the original African English creole was preserved more fully. There is one dialect of Black English still spoken on the Georgia coast, called Gullah, which is still spoken there by about 20,000 people; it is thought to represents the closest thing to the original creole.

After the Civil War, Black English continued to evolve and change, especially in the creation of new vocabulary. After the 1920's millions of blacks migrated to northern cities, where various varieties of Black English continue to develop.

There is one other notable southern English dialect. The Cajun French in Louisiana also adopted English with noticeable traces of their former language.

Next weekend I’m attending the Arts and Education Council’s Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga with keynote speakers Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle. Lots of great Southern writers will be there, including Wendell Berry, Bobby Ann Mason, Roy Bount, Jr., Clyde Edgerton, and many others. (I’m especially looking forward to seeing playwright Beth Henley, whom I went to high school with in the 1960s in Jackson, and haven’t seen since!) Anyway, I noticed on the program that one of the panels will be addressing this very issue that I’m blogging about today: “Borrowing Tongues: Writing To and From Another Race.” The panel will be led by Madison Smartt Bell, Allan Gurganus, Josephine Humphreys and Randall Kenan. I’ll be all ears. Check back after April 4 to see what I learned.

Until then, it’s back to work on an essay I’ve been asked to contribute to a second anthology on Southern women and spirituality. Not a lot of dialect in it, but I’ll be paying closer attention to every syllable uttered!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fw: Random Acts of Spamness

If you’re like me, you receive tons of junk mail in your (snail) mail box every day. I know I bring some of this on myself, because I’m a catalogue shopper. And it really doesn’t bother me too much, since it only takes a minute or two to toss it in the trash, after weeding out the goodies, like Bed Bath & Beyond’s 20% off coupon.

And now that I’ve got Gmail, I get very little junk mail, compared with the amount I got when using Yahoo. Most of it lands in my Spam box anyway. But here’s what’s bothering me. It’s the random acts of Spamness that arrive in my inbox, often from friends, so I know I might be stepping on some toes here.

Several times a day I see these two dreaded letters in the subject box, “Fw:” You know the "Fw:"s I'm talking about:
Sometimes it’s 500 pictures of precious baby animals.
Or a sentimental poem about best friends or mothers and children.
Or maybe a warning about a catastrophic internet virus that turns out to be an urban legend.

The point is, it arrives uninvited into my personal inbox, where it takes up my time because I have to do something about it. I can delete it without opening it, but then I take the chance that it might actually be something personal and valid. So I usually open it, see that it’s not something worth my time, and delete it. Without a pang of guilt as I ignore the final sentence, which often reads something like this, “Please send this to everyone you know immediately.” Not going to happen. Ever. Even if it tells me that baby animals will die if I don't do it. I don't like threats.

I’m a writer and I work out of my home. Even so, I receive close to 50 emails some days. My husband, who is a physician, gets several times more emails a day than that. I can imagine the crowded email boxes of lots of folks who are in business, marketing, and other arenas which thrive on use of the social media.

So, I’m asking: How do you deal with these random acts of Spamness? Do you censor the people who send you this stuff on a regular basis? Do you mark them as Spam? If you do, does that block those people from sending actual real, personal emails? How is this different than looking at your Caller ID before answering your phone, and deciding whether or not to answer it? Please leave a comment--I'd love to know your thoughts. I promise I won't consider them to be Spam!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Beginning of Our Salvation: Embrace Your Grace

This morning at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation. As this beautiful hymn declares:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
The revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
Rejoice, O Full of Grace,
The Lord is with You!

In his homily this morning, Father John Troy commented on this hymn, saying that this feast is, in many ways, more significant (my word—I can’t remember his) even than Pascha, which is “the feast of feasts” in the Orthodox Church. He went on to say that at Pascha we celebrate victory over death, which is something he can wrap his mind around better than what happened at the Annunciation, when God entered Mary’s womb, which was truly the beginning of our salvation. It is, indeed, a great mystery.

The most mysterious woman of all time, the Holy Virgin Mary, answered God’s unthinkable request—to offer her womb for the conception of His Son—with these words, “Be it done to me according to Thy will.”

Most of us don’t always respond to God’s love the way Mary did. Take my favorite television character, Grace Hanadarko on Saving Grace. In the opening to each show, Grace says:

I wanna bust the world wide open
The way that you do when you’re filled with youth
I wanna engage with people..and cops..and enemies
I wanna be physical and I also want to ask the big questions
I wanna taste the taste… and fix the problems.
I wanna run headlong into chaos..and bad guys..and darkness..and pranks..and fun..and laugh laugh laugh.
I wanna be the best friend.. and I wanna be the greatest aunt and the most complicated daughter
I wanna be the mystery in the room…
and I wanna be known.
Embrace your Grace.

I think I love this character because she is so alive. And so honest and real. She goes after life with everything she’s got. And she’s got plenty of wounds—she was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child, and her sister was killed by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Powerful backstory—kudos to series writer, Nancy Miller. Watch an interview with her here, where she talks about the mystery of God and His love for us, how life is messy, and the importance of writing the truth.

Earl—the angel assigned to save Grace—tells her in one episode, “I love how you love, Grace. It’s a white hot, mighty love.”

In Monday night’s episode she tells Earl why she loves sex. (I won’t quote her here. I think you get the point without the graphic details.)

Not an exchange you’d expect between a woman and her angel. Not at all like the exchange between the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel.

But one I can identify with. I can also identify with Grace’s anger towards Earl at times, although I don’t have a gun and wouldn’t know where to aim it if I did, since I’ve never actually seen my guardian angel, or any angel. (I know people who have.)

Last year on this day I was preparing to teach an iconography class. And yes, I still need to finish the two icons that Kerry and I have been working on for the nave for about two years now. We’ve scheduled days to work on them together twice during Lent this year, but we’ve each had to cancel once. I’m so into my writing projects that I’m having trouble pulling away from them and getting back to painting icons. Maybe painting icons is an important way for me to embrace my grace. But not today. Maybe soon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gifts of the Magi, sort of

I received three wonderful gifts the past two days, and I’d like to share a bit of the wealth. The title of this post isn’t intended to be disrespectful, just a play on words. Because the “gifts” I received weren’t free—I paid a small price for each of them—but they did come to me from “wise men.”

First, the Sunday New York Times had a wonderful article by Robert Leleux, author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, called “A Memory Magically Interrupted.” It’s about his grandmother’s experience with Alzheimer’s. Actually, it’s about the upside of Alzheimer’s, something you don’t see in print very often. Although I’ve mentioned the way that the disease has actually changed my mother’s personality into one that is, well, less judgmental. And like Leleux says of his grandmother, Mom actually seems happier at times. None of this is to take away from the awfulness of the disease, but perhaps just to find something upbeat to say about it. Great article—if you are caring for, or close to someone with Alzheimer’s, you should read it.

My second gift came in the mail yesterday. It’s one of the books that Jere Hoar recommended to me on my visit to his house in Oxford a few weeks ago: Growing Up by Russell Baker. Jere recommended the book because he knows I’m writing a memoir. What he might not have known, unless he’s been reading my blog, is that my mother has Alzheimer’s. Baker’s memoir is literary prose of a high caliber, and I know I’m going to savor every page. But for now, I’m going to share some excerpts from the first chapter, because that’s where he hooked me, where he shined his light into experiences that are perhaps familiar to many of us who love someone with Alzheimer’s:

“At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoons for children who were now gray with age. Through all this she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science….

….For ten years or more the ferocity with which she had once attacked life had been turning to a rage against the weakness, the boredom, and the absence of love that too much age had brought her. Now, after the last bad fall, she seemed to have broken chains that imprisoned her in a life she had come to hate and to return to a time inhabited by people who loved her, a time in which she was needed. Gradually I understood. It was the first time in hears I had seen her happy.”

The third gift also came from my friend Jere Hoar. Knowing that I’m a student of the written word, he emailed me yesterday, recommending these DVDs from The Teaching Company, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft.” The set includes 8 DVDs with lectures by Brooks Landon at the University of Iowa. Regularly priced at $254.95, the set is on sale now for $69.95. I ordered them this morning and can’t wait for this next step in my “continuing education.” Thanks for the tip, Jere!

Wish I could spend the day reading Russell Baker’s memoir. Or working on mine. But today’s not a writing day. It’s a day to pay my mother’s bills, since her memory has been magically interrupted, and to take care of some of life’s less exciting activities, like grocery shopping and exercising. Hey—maybe I can read while I’m on the elliptical machine. Whatever the day may bring, I’m thankful for these gifts.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Gate of Mysteries

Today is the Third Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, known as the Adoration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. I didn’t take pictures at St. John this morning because I had to hurry home at the end of the Liturgy to fix lunch for my husband, who had a plane to catch. Had I stayed, I would have seen the procession with the cross, adorned with dozens of bright red carnations. The tradition varies a bit from church to church, but in general, the priest raises the cross up and we all bow down and sing:

Before Thy cross we bow down in worship, O Master,
And Thy holy resurrection we glorify!

After my husband left for the airport I sat down to write this blog post, and I checked to see what I wrote about this Sunday a year ago, here. It’s interesting to note that I was having the same struggles I’m having now. It reminds me of the story:

A parishioner went to Confession and said, “Father, I’m embarrassed because every time I come to Confession it seems like I’ve got the same sins as last time.”

The priest looked at him and said, “What? You want new sins?”

So, our spiritual struggles sometimes involve dealing with the same weaknesses all our lives, whether that be a temper we can’t control, or struggles with drugs, alcohol, or gluttony. For some it might be discontent or resentment about our circumstances, which seem overly burdensome to us. All these things are part of what some people call “Carrying your cross.”

Yesterday I visited with a man who has a very heavy cross, but one who bears it well. On the way home to Memphis from the beach, I stopped in Jackson and met my niece, Aubrey, at the nursing home to visit with Mom. (Here we are—three generations.)

We sat outside in the courtyard for a while, because the weather was gorgeous, and Mom loves the birds and trees and flowers. But her mind has slipped even more since my last visit a few weeks ago. She’s had two falls, and they’ve had to put a lap guard on her wheel chair because she can’t remember not to get up and try to walk by herself. As we talked, I saw the wheels turning behind her glazy eyes, but she struggled to find the words to describe what she was thinking. At one point, she said, “You know, it’s kind of two, three, four,” and she made a motion with her hand as if she was placing items in a row on a table. “And then six, seven, eight,” the movement continued. At another point she said, “I work all day on Mondays, just going zoom-zoom here and zoom-zoom there,” and she made a motion as though turning the steering wheel of a car. “But then I can rest the other days of the week.” And then she smiled. Who knows what she’s remembering, possibly something from her very active life many years ago, when she was taking care of my brother and me, or teaching school, or helping my father run the business they owned and operated from 1982 until 1994—Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports.

After a while, Charles wheeled his electric scooter chair over to join us for a visit. Charles is 55. I wrote a post about him in January, here. At the time, I thought Charles’ disability had been caused by a stroke he had suffered as an adult. It was just a guess. But yesterday I learned the truth. When Charles was about 8 years old, he got sick with St. Louis Encephalitis, a virus that invades the central nervous system, including the spinal cord and brain. As Charles struggled to form intelligible words to describe his story, I watched Mother, who picked at the crumbs from the cookie I had brought her earlier, which were now stuck to the plastic wrap in a wad on her lap guard. I didn’t know if she could understand Charles’ words or not, so every few sentences, I would “interpret” them for her, to include her in the conversation.

Charles’ mind is sharp. He and Aubrey carried on a conversation about politics and the folks who run Jackson, “America’s City of Grace and Benevolence,” and their hopes for a better mayor in the upcoming election. Aubrey is a lawyer and works for the Attorney General’s Office.

At one point in Charles’ story, he told us that he almost died when he first got sick with encephalitis, and that some people might think that would have been a blessing. After all, he’s lived his entire life as an invalid, and now he’s stuck in a nursing home where most of the residents are twenty-five to forty years older than him, and only a few are capable of stimulating conversation. But he said, “Jesus saved me from death, and I thank Him every day for my life, although it’s a hard life.”

Watching him talk about his life, I notice how beautiful his eyes are—deep blue, with a twinkle. And what a handsome face he has, with nice bone structure and pretty hair. You have to look past the drooling, and his inability to make his mouth and facial muscles work the way he wants them to. His right foot had slipped off the platform at the base of his scooter, and it’s paralyzed, so he asked me to put it back up for him.

I knelt beside him and lifted his completely limp, but very large and heavy, leg, taking several tries to get it where he wanted it, next to his other foot. I thought about how humbling it was for him to have to ask me to do that, and how the nurses and aids have to take care of all of his physical needs on a daily basis. He just smiled and said, “thank you.”

So, this morning I thought about Charles’ cross, and suddenly mine didn’t seem as heavy. Half-way through Great Lent, and I have not really yet begun to repent. But maybe this past week at the beach, and my visit with Charles at the nursing home, reminded me to be thankful, and thankfulness can certainly lead to repentance.

Returning to Memphis after being gone for almost a week, I couldn’t help but notice that Spring arrived while I was away. Check out these costumed figures parading on stilts as part of the Polish celebration of the vernal equinox.

And near 'Aqrah, Iraq, on March 20, 2007--Torch-bearing Kurds gathered in the countryside to celebrate Nowruz in Iraq, where the Persian vernal equinox celebration is marked by fire, dancing, music—and journeys into the wilderness.

But here in Memphis, at least in our yard, spring was welcomed in a less dramatic way:

Our first tulip bloomed…

And is being watched over by this little squirrel.

The squirrel is also very interested in this bird’s nest that's just been built on the top of this column on our porch, just a few feet from our front door. The bird flies away when I go out to take a picture, but then I can watch from the window as she comes back in to finish up with construction and rest for a spell in her new digs. Maybe I can sneak a photo when the babies are born.

And so I welcome Spring, and the second half of Great Lent, with a heart full of thankfulness. With God’s help, I will try to take up my cross with less grumbling. And I’ll try to seek humility, so the devil won’t have as easy access. In his wonderful homily at St. John this morning, our Assistant Pastor, Father Nicholas, talked about how people who walk around with their heads lifted arrogantly are easy prey for the devil, because the devil reaches up to snare us. He said the devil can’t reach down, so when we humble ourselves (at that point Father Nicholas made a gesture of bowing) the devil can’t get us.

His words reminded me of something Jere Hoar told me when I was visiting on his front porch in Oxford on my birthday. It was about Daisy, his Llewellin English Setter. He told us that she had been attacked by several dogs because she carried her head in the air, acting like she was better than the others. She seems to have settled down now. Maybe she’s learned some humility. Like Charles Wilkins Walker in the nursing home. I bet the devil wouldn’t dare reach down and bother Charles.

But I’m sure he’ll be after me. So, I’ll try not to have my head in the air while carrying my cross this fourth week of Great Lent. And I'll try a little harder each day to take my sorrow straight. I’ll leave you with these words of inspiration from one of my favorite saints, Isaac the Syrian:

If you would be victorious, taste the suffering of Christ in your person, that you may be chosen to taste of His glory. For if we suffer with Him, we shall also be glorified with Him. Behold, for years and generations the way of God has been made smooth through the Cross and by death. The way of God is a daily Cross. The Cross is the gate of mysteries.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sand Castles

Thoreau said, "Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

I took these pictures of sand castles this afternoon... my personal favorite is the mermaid, but it's hard to see from the side. I posed beside the pyramid because of the Memphis connection. corny, huh? And the boys from the University of Alabama were so proud of their Beer Pong table they posed behind it and asked for a link to my blog. Hi, boys! Now, on with philosophizing about castles in the air.

Writing can be like that. First you dream. You imagine that short story, that poem, that novel. Or you envision that essay or that memoir. You might do a half dozen outlines and a couple of really bad first drafts (okay, I guess there's no such thing as more than one first draft) and finally you get down to the hard work of building a foundation under that initial dream.

That's what this writing retreat has been about for me. I've been dancing around those castles that I built in the air for a few years. First I wrote a novel but the characters were strapped with the impossible task of disguising truths that begged to be told. Not that fiction isn't about truth. The best fiction reveals the truth more vividly that lots of nonfiction. But the genre wasn't working for me. So, I published a few essays, and then got to work outliing a memoir. I got just over halfway through drafting it when I got stuck. Because I needed some space so I could create art, and not just record events. A memoir is not an autobiography. It's a reflection on certain aspects of a life or events or people. I just made that definition up. Hope that's right, 'cause that's what I'm writing.
As Tolsoy said: "Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.... it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced."
Now. I didn't make that up.

So, I made lots of progress this week, and tonight I said goodbye to the beach... caught this guy boogie boarding just before sunset.

And finally I pulled up my umbrella and chair and put them in the trunk of my car for my departure early tomorrow morning. I'll stop in Jackson to visit my mom. The nursing home called this morning to say they finally had to put a lap guard on her wheelchair to keep her from getting up and falling again. It's a last resort--this morning they found her sitting on the floor by her bed, unhurt, but confused. She just can't remember that she can't walk on her hip because it never healed properly. What else can they do?

I'll pick up some soft cookies from McAllister's Deli, Mom's favorites, and hopefully bring some sunshine from the beach into her life tomorrow. I'm sad to leave the beach, but I'll be happy to be home with hubby and Oreo tomorrow night. G'nite all.