Tuesday, April 28, 2009


“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose….”

The Janis Joplin song came on my husband’s satellite radio as we were driving back to Memphis from Seagrove Beach, Florida, on Monday. We’re a lot like Donnie & Marie Osmond in our music tastes—I’m a little bit country; he’s a little bit rock ‘n roll. So we go back and forth between the Nashville country stations and the classic rock stations when we travel together. But my husband loves the music that was big when we were dating, in the 60s. And that music has been streaming into my email box with a vengeance lately… from Chuck Anepohl. Chuck is a classmate of mine from the Murrah High School class of 1969. We’re having our 40th Class Reunion in Jackson, Mississippi this July 31/August 1, and classmates are coming out of the woodwork in response to Chucks emails, each one having another song from our era attached.

I’d be less than honest if I said that I have no reservations about going to the reunion. I skipped the 30th, after feeling kinda’ like an outsider at the 10th and 20th. My high school, at least at the height of its glory—in the 60s—was full of Golden Boys and Beauty Queens. Beautiful People. It was like practice for Ole Miss, where I went to college my freshman year. So many movers and shakers … I feel like I need to lose 30 pounds and get a book published before going to the reunion! So, the book thing isn’t going to happen. And I’ve been trying to shake this 30 pounds for 20 years. So, if I go back, I go back just like I am. In 3 months and 3 days from today. Several things have helped bolster my courage:

A few months ago I began to reconnect with a few classmates I hadn’t seen or communicated with in, well, 40 years. One of them, who will go unnamed because he would be embarrassed, was someone I was totally intimidated by during high school. I thought he was “too cool” to speak to me, so I would look the other way when I passed him in the halls. Turns out he’s a great guy. We’ve connected a little bit through writing, and I told him how I felt in school and he said, “We were all scared to death back then. It was just a façade… acting cool like that.”

Some folks reading this won’t believe that I felt this way, because I had lots of “honors” in school—I was Secretary of the Student Council and voted a “Favorite” in the Feature Pageant, an officer in the theater guild, business manager of the school newspaper, honors and activities that led to my being inducted into the Hall of Fame. But I was so lonely. Even with a non-stop flow of boyfriends (which I clung to in my insecurity) I never felt like I “fit in.” Thirty-something years

later I would learn some things about myself that explained some of my outsider status—my inability to connect, intimately, with people. But I still struggle to believe it wasn’t because my thighs weren’t skinny. Or my hair wasn’t perfect. Or my—fill in the blank….

So today when I picked up yesterday’s New York Times and read the Sunday Styles section’s article about Susan Boyle, “Yes, Looks Do Matter,” I wasn’t really comforted. The psychiatrists and sociologists and journalists quoted in the article pretty much gave us all a nice big hall pass—an excuse for the judgments we make about people based on their appearance. Even Boyle herself is resigned to it, saying: “There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are.”

Okay I get what the NYU psychology professor says about stereotypes being “a necessary mechanism for making sense of information,” but I don’t think we, as fallen human beings, stop at that. I think we go far beyond categorizing. I thinkwe judge. And it causes wounds that can last a lifetime. So how do we break free from those wounds? How do we quit caring what people think of us? Is Susan Boyle immune to it? She’s made a change in her looks since her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.

Check out the difference in these photos.

While we were at the beach I read two amazing books. I’m saving one of them to review in June, just before its release. (I got an advance copy.) But I’m dying to talk about how the author also felt this pressure to perform, this hunger for applause, this people-pleasing urge. And how, even at the end, having been through an unbelievable life-changing experience, he still felt that way, to a degree. The experience helped him grow, but he wasn’t a completely different person. He left room for “discovery,” as I discussed in my last post. That’s something I’m working on in my own writing.

So, instead, I’ll talk about the other book I read at the beach, Same Kind of Different As Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. Ron Hall was an upscale art dealer in Fort Worth when his wife, Deborah, plunged them into the world of the homeless, including Denver Moore. Denver grew up in modern-day slavery on a plantation in Louisiana, escaping to the streets, which seemed a luxury by comparison. I won’t spoil the story line (it’s a true story) by saying too much, because I really hope you read this book, but I learned something about freedom from it. Denver was more free than the rich people who were enslaved to their “stuff” and their way of life. And he freed some of those who were slaves to riches and image and comfort through the big heart of one woman who had enough love and courage to cross the line, over the stereotypes, over several comfort zones, to truly love without prejudice. (He eventually became in artist himself. You can see his work here.)

This is Denver, with Ron Hall, the art dealer.

It got me to thinking about the slavery I’ve lived in for almost 60 years, and how maybe it’s a slavery of my own making. This caring about what other people think to the point of trying to “achieve” acceptance. But how does one break free of this?

Maybe recognizing the chains is the starting point. And that’s where I am today. Wanting to break free, but realizing that I still believe I have something to lose… which makes me a slave to things I wouldn’t want to lose. Or to things I want but don't think I can ever have.

Either way, maybe Joplin was right: Maybe freedom is about having nothing left to lose.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


“Discovery consists in seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.”—Albert Szent-Gyoryi

When I read that quote in the middle of an article in VIE-people+places by Chris Kent, I knew he had a message for me. Kent is the man responsible for spear-heading the real estate sales here at Seaside since its beginning, in 1981. (Since then Chris has consulted in over 60 communities regionally, nationally, and internationally.) I say “here” at Seaside, because I’m writing this post from Seaside, Florida. Amazing place. It’s a warm April afternoon on the patio at Amavida Coffee. I picked up a copy of VID-people+places yesterday and have been enjoying this article.

Kent wasn’t interested in real estate sales when he met Robert Davis, Seaside’s founder. He had been reading fiction, philosophy, psychology, anthropology… and he found, in Seaside, “a laboratory to test whether people could understand and embrace depth and subtleties presented at a level beyond those found in a typical real estate brokerage office.”

He found all that and more. He found a place that didn’t need “selling” in the traditional sense. Seaside only needed to be discovered, and embraced. As he said, “Our role was shifting from ‘selling’ to acting as guides and interpreters of the physical and cultural elements of place.”

That’s what I’m doing this week, on vacation in next-door Seagrove Beach, and also hanging out here at Seaside as much as possible. Listening to local music while enjoying great food and wine on the patio at Café Rendezvous one night… watching sunsets on the beach other nights… reading some really good books (more on them in another post) … and taking a bit of a break from writing. But still thinking about my work… my essays, and especially my memoir. Thinking about how it needs more discovery.

Discovery is an important element in creative writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. The writer leaves something for the reader to discover… and even for herself—the writer—some room for discovery is essential to keep the story alive… open, not so tightly wound. This is really difficult for me. I like everything wrapped up neatly. Yeah, I’ve never been comfortable with loose ends. But I’m learning. And the beach helps. Several people have asked me what the bumper sticker on my car means: the waves represent the ocean, and sowal means South Walton County, home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

I’m posting from Amavida Coffee in Seaside ‘cause there’s no wi-fi in our condo this time...

But it’s a great excuse to hang out in Seaside… and buy more pearls from Wendy and Jean-Noel Mignot at their shop, La Vie Est Belle , which is right next door to the Café Rendezvous Wine Bar.

This trip I got these earrings to match the necklace and bracelet from previous visits. The Mignots are going to be in Memphis with their jewelry at a show Memorial Day weekend… I’ll post details closer to the date and invite some friends to go with me!

So many treasures here… like the folks you meet from all over the place. Two of our “neighbors” at the condo this week are this couple from Atlanta… I caught them doing “bench aerobics”on the bench near our patio one morning..

and then I was even more impressed when the woman started doing pushups! Well, at least I did an hour walk on the beach every morning. And of course hubby got in his 5-mile run everyday on the bike and jogging path of nearby “highway” 30-A.

We had dinner at “Fish Out of Water” in the Watercolor Inn one night… and caught sunset on the balcony as we ravished our lemon drop martinis (yum!)…

Coffee every morning on our first-floor patio with steps to the beach was magical…

Tonight we’re headed to Stinky’s down on Santa Rosa … after enjoying “just one more sunset” in Seagrove…

I’m rambling now so I can hurry and post these photos while enjoying $2 Chardonnay from Modica Grocery’s “happy hour” …

We’ll be heading home on Monday, and I’ll get back to regular email, blogging and Twittering… but you know it’s been kinda’ nice to be less attached to it for a few days. This may be the most relaxed I’ve been in a while….

… searching for that lost shaker of salt….

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Got Poetry?

Only 9 more days of National Poetry Month left, and I’ve barely given it a mention this year! It’s not because I haven’t been thinking about it… and reading it… and reading about it quite a bit. But two things happened yesterday to prompt this post:
The May/June issue of Poets & Writers arrived in the mail, and a friend invited me to hear the Orthodox poet, writer and speaker, Scott Cairns, in Oxford on May 2 and 3. In his biography on the Orthodox Speakers Website, Cairns talks about his journey to Orthodoxy and his development as a poet: “the poems —the writing of the poems, learning to lean into the language, learning to trust poetry as my vocation— actually led me to Orthodoxy.” He has also written a memoir about visiting Mount Athos, A Short Trip to the Edge, and several others books of poetry and prose.

My first brush with Cairns’ art happened last May, when I discovered his book of paraphrased mystical writings, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life. I blogged about it and excerpted from it here. So, if you’re interested, Cairns is speaking at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Oxford at 5:30 p.m. on May 2, and again on Sunday morning. A bit of info from their announcement:

On Saturday, May 2nd at 5:30, renowned spiritual writer and poet Scott Cairns will conduct an informal discuss/Q & A about writing, creativity, spirituality and religion.
On Sunday, May 3rd, Mr. Cairns will be featured at the adult forum. He will read briefly from his poems and/or memoir, followed by a Q & A.

Scott Cairns (pronounced K-air-nz, one syllable, “air” in the middle) is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Missouri. His work has been featured in The Best American Spiritual Writing (Houghton-Mifflin), and his memoir, Short Trip to the Edge, was recently published by HarperCollins. A dynamic reader and speaker, as well as one of the most prominent spiritual writers in the U.S., Cairns received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006.

I’m looking forward to heading down to Oxford on May 2 with a friend, so I’ll report back in a couple of weeks!

Poets & Writers always has some great stuff in it, and this issue did not disappoint. However, since I write prose rather than poetry, I always head for any craft articles about memoir and essay, and also interviews with agents and editors. I won’t spend any time commenting on my reads in this issue, but instead would like to congratulate two friends on their awards which are announced in P&W:

Dinty Moore, with whom I studied at the Creative Nonfiction Conference last year, won the 2008 Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize for his essay collection Between Panic and Desire, which I blogged about here. Congratulations, Dinty!

The second name I recognized in the awards section of P&W was Ravi Howard of Mobile, Alabama, whom I enjoyed meeting this past November at Southern Writers Reading, down in Fairhope, Alabama. Ravi was the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for his novel, Like Trees, Walking. (This award honors an African American author for a book of fiction.) Ravi lived in my home town of Jackson, Mississippi for part of his childhood, and I enjoyed hearing Ravi read from this book last year. Kudos, Ravi!

On a different but related note, a friend reminded me the other day of the treasure-trove the Scriptures are, and how they’re offered up to us over and over in the services of the Orthodox Church… especially the Psalms. I memorized a fair amount of scripture growing up, but the verses that are in my heart now are there just from repetition in the services. And yes, in times of fear, anxiety, depression, they can be an arsenal against the enemies of soul and spirit. As the Psalmist says, "Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee" (Psalm 119:11).

John Burgess, in his book, Why Scripture Matters, says: In hearing and repeating Scriptures daily, early Benedictine monks memorized large portions of it. Because they would then recite Scriptures to themselves as they worked, they were sometimes known as “the munchers.”…. The traditional training of Orthodox priests included memorization of all 150 Psalms.

Burgess also talks about how various people during times of imprisonment have been strengthened by the Scriptures that are embedded in their hearts, giving them “assurance that God had not abandoned them, that God was indeed with them.” He goes on to say, “In a word-weary world, memorization is a lost art.”

I was thinking about his words when I picked up last Sunday’s (April 5) copy of the New York Times Book Review and read the essay on the back inside cover, “Got Poetry?” by Jim Holt, author of Stop Me If You've Heard This. Holt started memorizing poetry a few years ago, and now has about 100 poems in his mental cache, including some as long as 2,000 lines! He takes them in short pieces, reciting them while jogging or just walking around Manhattan. Holt shares tips on the process of memorizing, but it’s the why that struck me:

“At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.”
Kind of like the monks “munching” on God’s word during the day.
Holt quotes Clive James’s book, Cultural Amnesia, where he declares that “the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.”
Maybe there’s really that much at stake. Or maybe it’s just a heightened experience of pleasure (poetry) or spirituality (Scriptures) that I’m intrigued by. For Holt, it was definitely the former:
It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within.
I’m reminded that every time I’ve heard my favorite poet, Beth Ann Fennelly, “read” from her work, she rarely looks at the written words on the pages in front of her. Her poetry is a part of her, and her delivery is much more transparent as a result. And really, I think the same can be said about reciting the Psalms, or even prayers, in church. During the sections of the service that I know by heart, my intellect gets out of the way and lets my heart take over.

I’m leaving for the beach (Seagrove) tomorrow through Monday…. and maybe I’ll take along a few of my favorite poems and try memorizing them on my morning walks. Ahhh, I can almost smell the ocean breeze now. But I’m leaving Memphis with a mixture of joy and sadness, as my dear friend, Nancy, lost her husband Lloyd to cancer today. I was blessed to spend some time with them on Friday, and I hope that my presence was even a tiny balm on Nancy’s pain. (This is Nancy and Lloyd about a year ago.) And that hope is expressed beautifully in one of my favorite poems, (which was also set to music by Kim Delmhorst, “Invisible Choir,” on her Strange Conversation CD), so I’ll leave you with George Eliot’s 1867 poem: (the last verse is my favorite)

O May I Join the Choir Invisible
Longum Illud tempus, Quum Non Ero, Magis Me Movet, Quam Hoc Exiguum.—Cicero, Ad Att., Xii. 18O
MAY I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirr’d to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, fail’d, and agoniz’d
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolv’d;
Its discords, quench’d by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.

And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobb’d religiously in yearning song,
That watch’d to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better,—saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shap’d it forth before the multitude,
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mix’d with love,
—That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gather’d like a scroll within the tomb
Unread forever.

This is life to come,
Which martyr’d men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow.
May I reach That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d,
And in diffusion ever more intense!

So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Christ Has Risen and the Women Dance With Joy!

Christ is Risen! Today is Pascha for Orthodox Christians all over the world… including my brothers and sisters here at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, where the celebration is ongoing with today’s “Agape Vespers,” egg hunt and picnic. But let’s back up to yesterday:

Holy Saturday afternoon brought a heightening festive spirit to the kitchen at St. John where a few of the women in the choir gathered to practice new music and “help” the others who were preparing the Easter Soup. Many thanks especially to Kim and Mindy, my main cooks... but also to Christine, for squeezing all the lemons!

Chopping green onions, cilantro and parsley… squeezing lemons… browning the ground lamb… sautéing the spices… simmering the soup…

All the while enjoying a little wine (as is allowed on Holy Saturday) and the feeling of being inside a multi-tasking spiritual organism… others were decorating the nave and fellowship hall with flowers for the feast, while others still were upstairs reading scriptures during the vigil.

And finally, at 11 p.m., we gathered to begin the Feast of Feasts. It was raining, so we weren’t able to do an outdoor procession this year, but that didn’t dampen our joy. At. All.
One of my favorite hymns of Pasch says it all:

Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered!
A sacred Pascha today hath been shown unto us:
a Pascha new and holy,
a Pascha mystical,
a Pascha all venerable,
a Pascha that is Christ the Redeemer;
a Pascha immaculate, a great Pascha;
a Pascha of the faithful;
a Pascha that hath opened the gates of Paradise unto us;
a Pascha that doth sanctify all the faithful.

As smoke vanisheth so let them vanish!
Come from the vision, O ye women, bearers of good tidings, and say ye unto Sion:
receive from us the good tidings of the Resurrection of Christ; adorn thyself, exult, and rejoice, O Jerusalem, for thou hast seen Christ the King come forth from the tomb like a bridegroom in procession.

So let sinners perish at the presence of God and let the righteous be glad!
The myrrh-bearing women in the deep dawn stood before the tomb of the Giver of life; they found an angel sitting upon the stone, and he, speaking to them, said thus: Why seek ye the living among the dead? Why mourn ye the incorruptible amid corruption?
Go, proclaim unto His disciples.
This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad therein!

Pascha the beautiful, Pascha, the Lord's Pascha, the Pascha all-venerable hath dawned upon us. , with joy let us embrace one another. O Pascha! Ransom from sorrow, for from the tomb today, as from a bridal chamber hath Christ shone forth, and hath filled the women with joy, saying: proclaim unto the apostles.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Both now and
ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

It is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant for the feast, and let us embrace one another. Let us say: Brethren, even to them that hate us, let us forgive all things on the Resurrection, and thus let us cry out:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, And on those in
the tombs bestowing life.

I was missing my children… I think this might be the first year that none of my three grown kids were able to come home for Pascha, so I was especially clingy to my 6-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, who obliged with lots of hugs and smiles all weekend.

And this amazing card she drew for my husband me. Look at the depths of spiritual symbols in her art work… souls raising from the dead… a spiral which represents God’s wisdom and the angels… the heart at the center of the cross, because without love sacrifice is meaningless…
After sleeping from 3:30 – 9:30 a.m., we joined Sophie’s family for a morning brunch, and again, it was Sophie who warmed my spirit, along with her little sister, Isabelle, by joining me in some joyful Middle Eastern dancing by their pool house… (music and photography by their father)…

So, I’ll leave you with these images…

Because, even as a writer, I still agree,

That a picture is worth a thousand words.

(Nawar did a video with the music, but I didn’t ask for it to download here, so you’ll have to use your imagination. Here’s a hint: when it comes to moving our hips, it’s in the genes. As in Sophie and Isabelle’s genes. I’m from Mississippi, remember? But hey—I do the best I can.)
Christ hath shown forth and filled the women with joy!
What a beautiful and mystical Pascha!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Who Wears the Face of God?

My cup runneth over. So much going on—I could fill several blog posts. The only thing to do is combine several items that each deserve their own post. [Reminder for blog newbies: click on anything that's underlined to link to more information.] I’ll begin with another book review:

The Unbreakable Child by
Kim Michele Richardson
A Pen & Palette Book Review

“Who wears the face of God?” This question is asked, silently for the most part, about a half dozen times throughout Kim Richardson’s gritty memoir about the abuse she suffered at the hands of the nuns and priests in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Kentucky in the 1960s. First she asks her attorney, William F. McMurry, and later she asks the Catholic Church's attorneys. She asks Father Lammers, the priest who abused her, her older sisters, and numerous other orphans. With years of pent-up emotion she finally asks God, Himself:

“I'm so disappointed in you, God.... You forgot to tell the world, I was supposed to be a princess, God, a princess!”

Finally she concludes that her attorney, the one helping her, is actually the one who wears the face of God for her, all the while declaring that "only the innocent child could wear the face of God." Her innocence, and that of the forty-four other children, now adults, who received a monetary settlement from the order of Roman Catholic nuns for decades of abuse, could never be restored, but, as McMurry says in his Afterword, "Kim's book will empower all of us to look beyond the cloak of secrecy of any institution responsible for the protection of children."

It’s a scary thing to confront evil when it’s embedded in the church. One of Kim’s sisters, a cancer survivor, backed out of participation in the law suit near the end because of this fear, saying, “Have you ever thought, Kimmi, God will punish us if we punish the Catholic Church and their priest and brides of Christ? Maybe I’ll get the cancer back.”

My own memoir-in-progress contains elements of abuse, so I thought I was ready to read Kim’s story without flinching. I was wrong. I flinched. I wept. I raged. But most importantly, I took some personal steps towards forgiving those who hurt me—and those who allowed it—because of Kim’s amazing journey of forgiveness. I also took a long, hard look at my own dysfunctional ways of dealing with my abuse, compared with Kim’s commitment not to give in to the things that ultimately destroyed one of her sisters, who followed their own mother’s path of drug and alcohol addiction.

I read with admiration as Kim “wavered between guilt and rage” and even felt compassion for the nuns themselves, “the dysfunction of these innocents.” I read with amazement as she told of keeping her silence about the abuse, even from her husband until she began the depositions. “I felt as if I were abandoning God, my soul. I prayed for forgiveness. I wished I could talk to God about it… but my voice screamed silence…. And with age came more silence…”

The Unbreakable Child moves seamlessly between the graphic scenes of a nightmarish childhood and the present depositions and interactions with her attorney, her husband, and her grown siblings. The scenes within the orphanage are written without judgment. She just tells the story, almost as if she were writing fiction, and lets the story reveal the truth—emotional and actual—to the reader. So, from a literary point of view, Unbreakable Child is creative nonfiction done well, a beautiful example of the old adage, “Show, don’t tell.”
Kim’s on her first book tour now. You can read about it and see photos on her blog. Just before her book launch, she took time to speak with me on the phone at length about my own writing, sharing wisdom from her experience dealing with agents, editors, publishers, and lawyers. A generous woman, on top of being creative, brave and …. yes, unbreakable. Kudos, Kimmi!

Next, Holy Week Continues…

Last night was Holy Unction—the service of anointing with holy oil for healing—the Holy Wednesday service in the Orthodox Church. I lit a candle for Kimmi, and thought about her a lot during the service. And when the priests anointed me with the oil of healing, I thanked God for these good men who love and protect their people, unlike the priest who abused Kimmi. One of the three priests anointing us tonight was my husband, Father Basil. That’s him in the picture. My six-year-old Godddaugher, Sophie, slept in my arms for much of the service, but woke in time for the anointing. I explained what was happening, and she said, “So, the holy oil on my hands will help me not to hit? And the holy oil on my mouth will help me not to say bad things?” She gets it. If only the nuns and priest at Kimmi’s orphanage had gotten it.

Today is Holy Thursday. Read my post from last year for info about dying eggs red and be sure and read the comments at the end for important tips from Erin and Anne Marie! This afternoon we’ll celebrate the Last Supper, and Jesus’ act of washing His disciple’s feet.
Then we’ll have a meal together in the fellowship hall. Afterwards we’ll return to the nave for the Twelve Gospel Readings that tell the story of Christ’s crucifixion.

And then comes Holy Friday. I won’t be blogging on Holy Friday this year, but you can watch videos and see photos and read about last year's services here. There’s Royal Hours. Then the women and children decorate the bier, and in the afternoon there’s the Taking Down from the Cross. And Friday night is maybe my favorite service, the Lamentations.

On Holy Saturday, after the morning service, during which I usually fall in love with my husband all over again (he’s the one throwing the bay leaves with such vigor in these videos) I’ll be making Easter (Lamb) Soup again. This year I’ve invited some of the younger women at St. John to join me in the church kitchen Saturday afternoon to help me make the soup—I’m wanting to pass on this tradition, which was taught to me by my dear friend, Urania, before she died in October of 2007. I miss her so much. Here's the recipe:
Easter (Lamb) Soup

This is the recipe in St. John Cooks, originally contributed by Urania Alissandratos, with a few alterations* made by Urania's daughter Julia and me, from our experience making the soup together in 2008. Also, the amounts have been adjusted for making a large pot to serve at the Paschal feast at church, rather than the smaller pot for eating at home. Suggestions for making it in stages before, during and after Pascha Liturgy are also included.

8-10 lbs. ground lamb
(depending upon how meaty you want it)
1 large batch parsley
1 large batch cilantro
4 bunches green onions
2 yellow onions
2 T fresh dill
1 stick butter
salt and pepper to taste

Ingredients for Avgolemono Sauce:

15 eggs
juice of 12 lemons
5 T cornstarch

Wash and chop onions, parsley, and cilantro. Brown meat until juices are absorbed. Do NOT drain off fat.* Add 1 stick butter. Add all chopped ingredients and cook until tender. Add enough water to make soup. This is a personal choice, as to how thick you want the soup. Cover and simmer one hour. While it’s cooking, prepare the Avgolemono sauce:

Squeeze 12 lemons, removing and disposing of seeds. Dissolve 5 tablespoons cornstarch in ½ cup of the lemon juice. In large bowl beat 15 eggs ‘til fluffy. Add the lemon juice and cornstarch mixture and the rest of the juice from the lemons. Put all of this into a large jar with a lid, or a large plastic container with a tightly fitting top and shake together well. Place in refrigerator for use after Paschal Liturgy.

Cool soup enough to place the pot in the refrigerator. This first part can be done as early as Holy Thursday, or as late as Holy Saturday afternoon. It is not recommended that lamb soup be cooked on Holy Friday. (It's traditional not to cook or eat any food on Holy Friday.)

When arriving at church for the liturgy on Saturday night, place the soup on the stove on low and stir. Come into the kitchen once or twice during the liturgy to stir and be sure the soup gets hot but doesn’t boil over. Immediately after communion, return to the kitchen and get the Avgolemono sauce out of the refrigerator and shake vigorously once more. Remove lid. Pour sauce into small saucepan. Gradually add broth from soup so that eggs do not curdle. Finally, add blended sauce and broth from saucepan into large soup pot, stirring constantly. (See why it helps to have more than one set of hands!)

Last: Add salt and pepper to taste. It’s better to wait and add these last for two reasons: (1) You can’t taste the soup if you’re fasting on Saturday afternoon, and (2) It’s really better to add salt near the end because it loses its flavor when it’s cooked for a long time.
I'll think about Urania and her husband Andy when I have my cup of soup, along with a glass of champagne, after the midnight Pascha service, greeting others with "Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!"... "Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!" Urania would love this next part:

Our Baby Robins!

For several weeks now I’ve been watching a mother bird build her nest just a few feet from our front door, on top of a brick column on our front porch, lay her eggs, and sit patiently protecting them through the storms of the past few weeks.

Today when I looked up at the nest while showing a visitor out the front door, we saw them—four baby robins!

To keep from scaring them, I’ve been watching them through the front windows, and taking pictures through the transom above the front door.

Once I opened the door and snatched a couple of better pictures while the mother was off digging worms.

What a joy to watch her arrive back with food for them and see their tiny beaks rise up out of the nest like the trumpet section of an orchestra!

The intimacy of this image, of the mother feeding her young, reminded me of something Frances Mayes wrote, in her essay in All Out of Faith: Southern Women On Spirituality: "Intimacy. The feeling of touching the earth as Eve touched it, when nothing separated her."

What a beautiful way to anticipate Christ’s glorious resurrection in just three more days!

And remember that whole thing about rhythm vs. balance in my last post? Well, with all that's going on this week, I've decided to go with the "rhythm" that's telling me to slow down and not stress myself by trying to do too much. So... this year I won't be dying eggs. Or hosting a Pascha Brunch at our house on Sunday morning. Instead, maybe I'll have the time and energy to be more present with those around me... my family and friends who wear the face of God.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rethinking the whole BALANCE thing...

Since my posts earlier this year about finding Order Out of Chaos, I’ve been struggling to balance those 3 goalswrite, exercise, organize. In fact, recently I’ve pretty much given up the struggle, and adopted a much less balanced lifestyle: write, write, write. Exercising 3+ times a week has turned into maybe once a week, which has resulted in weight gain and increased arthritis pain, depression, lack of energy, etc. And it seems all I can do to keep the progress I made on organizing from backsliding, when what I really need is to keep going with the projects.

Just today I found Julie Verleger’s “Organized Home” blog, and website, both through Twitter . As I looked through some of her posts, I couldn’t help but wonder, “when does she have time to post and tweet? Does she actually have time to enjoy the order in her own home, her own life? Is she at peace?”

If you keep up with my blog, you know that one third of my goals is actually going well—I’m writing prolifically and continuing to publish essays and not losing hope in querying agents with my book proposal. So… how come I’m not at peace?

Yesterday I found an article in the May issue of Working Mother that spoke to my struggle with balance. It was the cover story, “This is How She Does It,” by Suzanne Riss that caught my attention. Riss was writing about Blair Christie, a 37 year old SVP of a big corporation, who juggles work with a marriage of ten years and mothering two daughters, ages 6 and 3, all while looking gorgeous. I read the entire article, which chronicled Blair’s parents’ divorce, her career path, a high risk pregnancy, her leadership qualities…. Until finally, I got to the last section of the four-page article and read the subtitle, “The Balance Myth.” Here’s an excerpt:

One thing you won’t hear Blair talk about is balance. She prefers to talk about work/life integration. “We have it in cycles,” she says. “Sometimes my home life is very important, and it needs more than fifty percent of my focus. Other times it’s work. It’s about finding the right rhythm.” Blair readily admits that some weeks she never finds the right rhythm, and that’s okay, too. She wishes working parents would be less harsh with themselves.

I think we can expand her words to apply to everyone, not just “working parents.” My kids are grown, and I work at home, on my own schedule, and I can’t seem to find the right rhythm. Or maybe I’ve got it but just don’t recognize it because of feelings of guilt about the areas that are being ignored at the time. Rhythm and balance aren’t really the same thing, are they? Come to think of it, I’ve always had rhythm.

Okay, enough about the whole write, organize, exercise thing. You won’t hear me talk about trying to balance that trio here again. Now I’m going for the rhythm thing. I feel better already! Excuse me, I’ll be right back.
I'm back now. Had to get up and do a little dance. And sing along with this amazing woman, who inspires me to keep plugging away, hoping that one day an agent or publisher will respond the way Simon Cowell did.

Yeah, that felt good, but…. something’s still bothering me. Maybe it’s spiritual. Did you notice that none of those three goals for 2009 was “pray”? But prayer is something ongoing, no matter what other activities are pressing, right? Or at least it should be. One of my favorite theologians is Saint Theophan, the Recluse. In his wonderful book, The Path to Salvation (and his earlier work, The Spiritual Life, which is incorporated into the larger book) Saint Theophan says that man has three levels of life:

spiritual: communion with God, prayer, worship, sacrament, fellowship, “interior work”
intellectual: reading, art, music, philosophy, science, educational pursuits, “mental work”
corporeal: food, housing, clothing, rest, exercise, sex, “physical work”

He says that each level has needs which are natural and peculiar to each person. And while it’s important to satisfy our intellectual and corporeal needs, it’s the balanced satisfaction of them that gives man peace:

Spiritual needs are above all, and when they are satisfied… peace exists; but when the spiritual needs are not satisfied… there is no peace. That is why the satisfaction of them is called “the one thing needful….”

During this Holy Week (for Orthodox Christians, in case you’re new to my blog) I’m trying to refocus my attention more to spiritual things, and as a result, I seem to upsetting the whole apple cart, so to speak. Just take a look at bthe levels of life into which my three goals fit:

Write—intellectual “mental work”
Exercise—corporeal “physical work”
Organize—corporeal “physical work”

All of this, whether kept in balance or not, leaves very little room for “interior work,” during “normal times,” much less during Great Lent and Holy Week, when extra prayers and church services and fasting are called for.

So, what have I learned from all this? I’ll try to sum it up:

Rhythm is as important as—or for some people maybe even more important than—balance when it comes to our intellectual and corporeal lives.

But balance is crucial when you bring in the spiritual life. As Theophan says, “the balanced satisfaction of them gives man peace.” And what kind of peace?

“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”—John 14:27

Tonight is the final—and my favorite—of the three Holy Week services of Bridegroom Orthros. It includes the beautifully penitential “Hymn of Kassiane.” I love this part of the hymn:
I will cover your spotless feet with kisses, then dry them with my tresses.
That's an icon of Saint Cassiane, at right. Tomorrow night is Holy Unction. Healing. Balance. Rhythm. Peace. It's a lot to take in... but God is with us.