Sunday, August 30, 2009

Birthdays, Books, and Mississippi Artists and Writers: All in One Weekend (whew!)

This weekend was full of significant events for me. Starting on Friday, when I drove to Jackson to visit my mother, and also to see some paintings by a high school friend, Kit Whitsett Fields. It was a routine visit with Mom at Lakeland Nursing Home in Jackson, Mississippi, where she's been living since November. Every couple of weeks when I drive down, I brace myself for the time when she won't know me. She knew me on Friday, but she couldn't figure out who Grace Cushman was... her great-granddaughter. This was the second time I've taken photos of Grace with me. A few weeks ago, she remembered who Jason was (my son, Grace's father) but this time there was a blank look on her face and she kept pointing to him and his wife, See, in the pictures, and asking again who there were. Made my heart so sad.

We were sitting in the dining room, where the movie,"A River Runs Through It" was on the big screen TV. Some of the scenes are full of great period clothing, music and dancing from the 30s, and Mom's face lit up when those scenes came on. There was something more familiar to her about the images on the screen than the images in my book of photos of Grace. It's that long-term memory trying to hang on....

On the bright side, I loved seeing Kit's watercolors, and ended up buying 7 of them! Kit's won awards for her work, and I love her style. Four of the ones I bought are small details of pieces of fruit which I'll frame for our kitchen once it's remodeled. But three paintings drew my attention because they are all scenes from Oxford, Mississippi, where I went to college, and where I now go regularly for writing workshops.

These photos don't do the paintings justice... and they are wrapped in plastic and not framed yet but they are beautiful.

The first one (above) one is Taylor Grocery, a catfish restaurant in Taylor, just south of Oxford. Great little town with a local theater and several artists' studios.

I love this one, of Roanoke, William Faulkner's home.

And this one of Square Books.

I'm going to frame them after we paint our bedroom and den, and find just the right spots for them, to remind me of good memories of Oxford.

Like Saturday, when the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group held our monthly critique session. We've been meeting for two years now, (our first meeting was in September of 2007) and at the last minute Herman and Patti couldn't make it, but we still had a great day with Doug, Tom, Patti ("B") and me. After the critiquing was done, Neil White met us for drinks at City Grocery, and Michelle Bright (also in the group but unable to meet with us today) stopped by to say hello. Congrats to Neil, whose book, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, got a nice review in the New York Times recently.

Four of us from our writer's group are going to the Escape to Create Fall Writers Conference in Seaside, Florida, in October, and Neil will be one of the presenters. He's always generous with his time and encouragement for new writers. I'll be posting more about it in a few weeks. Seven of us (four writers and three of our spouses, including mine) will be staying in a house right on the beach in Seagrove, just next door to Seaside. Can't wait!

After a busy Friday and Saturday, today was relaxing. Can you believe this weather, in August, in Memphis? Hubby and I enjoyed dinner outside on our front porch earlier this evening, with no humidity and a lovely breeze. Felt like fall! When we came back inside there was a phone message from his sister, Cathy, who lives in Atlanta. Her daughter, Amy, had given birth to twin girls, Allie and Brynn, this morning! Amy wasn't due 'til mid October, but both girls seem to be doing great. Here they are with Amy and Kevin, in the newborn ICU, where the girls will need to stay for about a week. Congratulations, Amy and Kevin! We cant wait to meet our two new great nieces!

Allie and Brynn were born on our son, Jonathan's birthday, so now these cousins will share birthdays. Happy Birthday, Jon! Hearing about the twins got me all mushy, so I got out the photo albums to look at Jon thirty two years ago. Here he is, with me, the day we brought him home.

And with his Dad and me....


And I'll close with this picture of Jon's 6th Birthday Party! I love it that Jon is still in touch with most of the people in this picture:

Front row: Jordan Henderson, Jon (the birthday boy!) and Stephen Schelver
Back row: Ben Skirtech, Joanna Meadows, Mary Allison Callaway, Carter Callaway, David Algood and Daniel Root.

Off to bed now... I've only got one chapter left to read in Pat Conroy's new book, South of Broad. Conroy's book, The Prince of Tides, is my all time favorite book (and movie) so I had eagerly anticipated this new book. Stay tuned for a review one day this week. Today it's Number One on the New York Times Best Seller List. Kudos to you, Pat!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Are You Saved?

Someone posted this You Tube video on Facebook today, and I found myself watching it over and over. The narrator is a young woman, maybe even a girl, and I love her voice and the music.

The images are sometimes blurry but often beautiful.

It only takes a few minutes to watch, if you're interested in an Orthodox Christian's simple, childlike explanation of salvation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It Happens

After keeping my butt in the chair for 3-4 hours yesterday and actually getting a draft done for the first chapter of my new memoir, "Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns," I woke up this morning ready to start on chapter 2. And excited that I had a critique sample to send to my writing group that meets this Saturday in Oxford. Good cup of coffee and nice bowl of fresh fruit for breakfast and I was ready to write. And then the dam broke. Literally.

Last week we had a plumber out to fix our drains that were clogged. We thought the problem was solved. Until water started flowing out from under the toilet in our master bathroom this morning.

Four hours and 17 wet towels later, I think it's stopped for now. The plumber can't come back until tomorrow morning (we have a home warranty contract, so if we don't use them we'll have to pay big bucks) so for now we're okay so long as we don't use the master bathroom or the washing machine.

Washing machine? Yeah, when we used it this morning, each time it drained the water from a load of clothes it flooded the bathroom! (Our laundry room backs up to our master bath.)

AND the master shower filled up, then backed up with yucky stuff.

Then, when the shower finally drained, the water rose up under the toilet and all over the bathroom floor, again.

I was mopping for hours, and used up 17 towels that are now hanging out back. I'm
trying to imagine that we live at the beach and the towels are just the result of a fun day in the ocean. But it's not working real well.

Now that it's mid afternoon and things are quiet again, I might try to settle down and start on chapter 2 of the book. Only problem is I'm exhausted! (Want to hear something ironic? The title of chapter 1 is "Holy Water." I guarantee you there's nothing holy about the water that flooded our bathroom for 3 hours today!) Trying to be upbeat about it. Listening to Sugarland helps. Aint no rhyme or reason, no complicated meaning, no need to overthink it.... sssss "It Happens!"

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More Ink for 2 Great Memorists

They both deserve it. I’m talking about the good ink two of my favorite new memorists (and friends) just received this past week.

A few days ago I opened the September issue of Writer’s Digest, which is full of yummy stuff about writing memoir, so it’s a great issue for me. I’m reading along and get to page 57, in the middle of Jenna Glatzer’s article, “Master the Memoir Basics: 5 Essentials,” and what book does she choose to site as an example of an excellent memoir? Kim Michelle Richardson’s The Unbreakable Child. (I did a review of Kim’s book here, and a Q&A with Kim here.)

Glatzer uses Kim’s book as an example of her 4th essential of memoir writing: A Hopeful Ending. Her opening sentence in this section speaks straight to my heart:

“It’s not time to write your memoir until your life has some sort of resolution of the main theme…. that it leaves the reader with hope….”

This very issue has tripped me up over and over again… trying to write about something that isn’t resolved yet. That’s the reason I set aside my first memoir, Dressing the Part: What I Wore for Love, at least for now. This second one I’m trying to get started on should be easier (Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns) because I keep thinking I’m in a better place in my spiritual life now and I’m ready to write about it, but then I keep hitting new bumps that change the geography of the story. I wish I could write fiction and just make it up as I go, but I don’t know if I’ve got enough imagination.

Anyway, Glazer says (in the WD article) that Kim’s book “delivers what the title promises: We read about a grown-up child who was not broken, and that leaves us with hope that she’s going to be OK, despite the abuse.”

And she is better than just OK. Her book is doing well and she’s touring and reading and signing… and working on a second book, which is going to be fiction!

In addition to the praise Kim received in the Writer’s Digest article, my friend, Neil White, just got a big spread in today’s Commercial Appeal. And to sweeten the pot, the article, “Finding ‘Sanctuary,’” was written by my friend, Karen Ott Mayer. (I did a Q&A with Neil on my blog, here.)

Karen’s article tells the backstory of Neil’s life, and also includes a nice sidebar about leprosy and an update on Carville, the federal prison that doubled as America’s last leprosarium, where Neil spent over a year incarcerated for kiting checks. Kudos to Karen for a well-researched, well-written article, and to Neil for the ink.

If you haven’t read either of these wonderful, redemptive memoirs, put them on the top of your “to read” list. You won’t be disappointed.

But my writing group is going to be disappointed if I don’t get a critique sample off to them today or tomorrow. We’re meeting this coming Saturday and right now I’ve got nothing. I need to follow Kim Richardson’s advice (she’s writing 10-11 hours/day now, on her first fiction novel): “Butt in Chair.” Hard to do on such a gorgeous afternoon! The low humidity and sunshine are calling me to get out for a walk, and the empty refrigerator is calling me to the grocery store. Walk. Shop. Write. Sigh….

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cousins: THESE Are My People

Next month I’ll be reading an essay on a panel at the Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. The essay, which was published online a while back at “Muscadine Lines,” is called, “Are These My People?” Much of my writing—personal and professional—circles around this theme, this search for my tribe, for somewhere to belong. My second blog post, over two years ago, carried this title. And since the first time I heard it, I loved Rodney Atkins’ song, “These Are My People.” (Also love that he’s from Tennessee and was born in 1969, the year I graduated from high school. He was also adopted, and is the spokesperson for the National Council for Adoption.)

All that to set up two stories I’m about to share—both about surprise encounters with cousins this week. Well, the first one wasn’t just this week. A few weeks ago I started getting messages on Facebook from one of my five first cousins, Julie Johnson, who lives in San Antonio. Julie’s father and my father were brothers, but she’s a lot younger than me because she’s Uncle Jim’s daughter from his second marriage. Julie didn’t meet her half brothers, Johnny and Jimmy, until 1977, because of some messy family issues. I remember the day they met—I was there, at my Aunt Barbara Jo’s house where we always shared Thanksgiving Day. But this year we also gathered on Christmas. We had lots to celebrate, because Bill and I had just adopted our first child, Jonathan, just four months earlier. Lots of cousins getting to know each other.

This is Julie and me. I think we had met once before, but she was just now old enough to begin to understand what cousins are. I was always closer to the cousins I grew up with in Jackson, Mississippi, but lately it’s cousin Julie that’s making the effort to reconnect. Oh, we’ve shared Christmas cards with family pictures over the years, but regular communication just wasn’t happening. Until I got on Facebook a couple of months ago. I love looking at her photo albums, seeing her kids, and even her cowboy husband roping cows at the rodeo! With FB messages, I can ask about her mother, my dear Aunt Joy, with whom I correspond by longhand, and get an immediate reply. Julie and I both lost our dads to cancer, but she was only 14 when she nursed Uncle Jim and shared his suffering. It’s very healing to me to reconnect with Julie, and I hope to make a road trip to visit her family soon.

My second healing “cousin encounter” happened yesterday. My mother grew up as an only child in Meridian, Mississippi. Her first cousin, Sonny Hopper, was also an only child, and they lived near each other and were more like brother and sister than cousins. Sonny is a retired Presbyterian minister in Lexington, Kentucky. A few years ago I took Mom on a road trip to visit him, before the Alzheimer’s had begun to erase her memories.

Yesterday Sonny and his wife, Barbara, stopped in Jackson to visit Mom at her nursing home, and called me from the lobby to chat and also to let Mom talk with me on their cell phone. I asked Sonny, “Does Mom know who you are?”

“Oh, she says we look familiar,” Sonny answered. “And she looks great—seems to be happy here, and that’s what matters.” Sonny is a good man.

After chatting with Barbara, she asked if I’d like to speak to Mom. Mother has forgotten how to use a telephone, so she doesn’t have one in her room any more. Barbara held the phone up to Mom’s ear and we chatted.

“Hi, Mom! It’s Susan.”

“Oh, hello dear. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Are you enjoying your visit with Sonny and Barbara?”


“Your cousin, Sonny Hopper, and his wife, Barbara, from Meridian.”

“Oh, I love the sound of those names.”

I can see Mom fingering the air as she speaks, as though she’s trying to capture the words and put them with the faces.

“Yes, remember that Sonny was Aunt Bess’s son, and you grew up with him in Meridian?”

“Oh, isn’t that nice. Yes, that sounds good.”

A few minutes later I was back on the phone with Sonny, thanking him for their visit and making sure I had all his contact information. After we hung up, I realized that he’s the only living person who knew my mother since she was a baby. Oh how I long to visit with him again and ask lots of questions about her…. And her people. My people.(I’ve got pictures of our visit with Sonny in Lexington a while back, but they’re in the attic…. Some day they’ll be in photo albums. Some day.)

But today I’m just thankful for cousins on both side of the family, and how much more connected I feel because of Julie and Sonny.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Eight Year Itch

In 2008 I got the seven year itch. Again. Just about every seven years since we’ve lived in Memphis we’ve moved to a different house. One of those times we built a custom house. It started in 1993, with meetings with architects and builders.

Finally we had a big ground-breaking ceremony, complete with an Orthodox blessing by our priest. (look at those guys with no beards:-)

The foundation was laid and the framing began.

Even during the snow, the work continued.

We moved in two years later, in June of 1995. Notice that I didn’t say, “finally the house was finished,” because it wasn’t. But we were tired of living in a rental, so we moved for the final month or so of the construction.

Here’s the house on the 4th of July that same summer (or maybe the next?) when the Olympic Torch made its way down our street and we had a big celebration. It was a doozy of a house, with a swimming pool, exercise room, home office, four bedrooms and 4 ½ bathrooms, formal living room, dining room, kitchen/den, laundry room, and attached two-car garage. I've got a box of photos in the attic that I don't want to dig through right now. I think the fact that I quite keeping photo albums when we built our house speak volumes about how much time and energy the project took!

But we sold it six years later, because our kids grew up and our needs changed. We scaled down, settling into another home in the same neighborhood, but 1000 square feet smaller and with 2 downstairs bedrooms and baths, thinking my mother would move in with us.

She didn’t. So… the seven year itch got me last year and we found another house we really liked, but we couldn’t sell this one, so we had to let it go. After studying the market, we finally realized we’ve got to renovate this one if it’s going to compete. Although it was built in 1990, the kitchen and master bathroom, in particular, need upgrades, and the house needs new carpet upstairs and painting in a few rooms.

So, a couple of weeks ago we began the process of interviewing contractors. The first one called back to say his subs are too busy to give him quotes, so he can’t bid on it right now. A good sign, actually, that the market is picking up. The second one came over yesterday to discuss what we wanted, offering a few good suggestions, and will get a bid to us soon. The third is coming over in about 30 minutes, so hopefully we’ll have two bids to compare soon.

And then the fun begins…. Stay tuned for before and after pictures and enjoy the ride!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Schooled on Elvis by an English Nun

My husband and I were blessed to visit the Monastery of St. John the Baptist near Essex, England in 2002. (Father Basil had actually been there previously, but this was my first visit.) I was especially looking forward to meeting Sister Magdalen, author of several books on children, including Children in the Church Today and Conversations With Children. Our parish in Memphis, St. John Orthodox Church, hosted Sister Magdalen for a series of talks in December of that same year. (That’s Sister Magdalen, with my husband, Father Basil, and me, at St. John in 2002.)

Reading Sister Magdalen’s books and hearing her talk were both blessings in my life, but seeing her “in action” at the monastery where she lives in England was even better. A chance encounter with her during “coffee hour” after Liturgy one morning speaks volumes to the unique way she lives her faith as she guides young souls who visit the monastery with their parents every weekend.

Quite a few families drive out from London and other cities and towns to worship at the monastery on Sundays and Feast Days, and Sister Magdalen leads a kind of “Sunday School” for the kids and teenagers. I won’t take time to elaborate on the wisdom she imparts here (read her books!) but only to share this encounter.

Sister brought two young boys—I’d say they were around twelve or so—up to meet my husband and I during coffee hour, introducing them and telling us that they were eager to meet the “people from Memphis.”

“Have you been to Graceland?” one of the young boys burst out immediately after asking Father Basil’s blessing.

My husband laughed gently and nodded. Before he could speak, I interjected my own sinful reaction:

“We’ve only been once and that was because some visitors insisted we take them.”

Not to be put off by response, the other young boy said, “Can you get us some pictures of Elvis? Autographed, maybe? Or any other souvenirs from Graceland?”

“Why would you want them?” I blurted out. “Elvis was just a drug addict who ruined his life. Why would you hold him up as such an idol?”

Sister saw my confounded look and smiled gently before responding:

“We like to think that Elvis, like each of us, had his own demons to fight. We all have our struggles and we do the best we can. We pray for Elvis and hope that he found peace at the end of his life.”

Of course I felt about two inches tall at that point and scrambled to redeem myself in front of the two eager young boys waiting for our response. Father Basil intervened:

“We’ll be happy to get some pictures for you. Can you write down your addresses?”

Sister Magdalen said to send the pictures and souvenirs to her and she’d give them to the boys. When we returned to Memphis I went out and bought pictures of Elvis and other memorabilia and mailed them to Sister Magdalen for the boys.

Every year during “Elvis Week” here in Memphis, I think about those boys, and about the lesson I learned from Sister Magdalen that day. As she wrote so wisely in her book, Conversations With Children:

“… we must do our best to avoid stifling any child’s inner freedom. We will probably make errors of judgment about attending this social event or that, about forbidding this or allowing that, about commenting on this activity or that, and so on. But we will do less harm if we courageously aim at providing filters rather than straitjackets…. Children whose home life is spiritual in an insular sense are not prepared for life. When they discover that the rest of the world—including those who ignore God—‘manages without prayer’ and ‘enjoys life more,’ they may reject spiritual values as na├»ve.”

As we (Orthodox Christians) prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God tomorrow (and Great Vespers tonight) let us not do so in a condescending way. Before my encounter with Sister Magdalen, it used to piss me off (how Christian is that?) to see the television coverage with thousands of “pilgrims” from all over the world holding candles at Elvis’ grave the same weekend that a meager few hundred gather at the local Orthodox Churches to commemorate the Feast of the Mother of God.

If the rest of the world in general—and Memphis in particular—wants to celebrate Elvis Presley’s death this week, I won’t begrudge them their freedom to do so. And maybe—just maybe—the next time someone comes to Memphis for a visit and asks me to take them to Graceland, I’ll be more amenable to the task. Especially if they happen to be English school boys.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Raising the Bar: Artificial Loneliness and Man-Induced Boredom

I’m writing from the Jury Assembly Room, where I’m serving jury duty this week. The morning began at 8:30 a.m. with a two-hour talk given by the Chairman of the Board of Jury Commissioners, followed by a 15 minute talk given by one of our 20 Shelby County Judges. I sat with about 250 others and listened with interest. This is my first time to serve. After the introductory talk, 10 people were called to be alternates for two Grand Jury cases, and then about 50 folks were called over to one of the Criminal Courts for selection. The rest of us are still waiting, either to be called or sent on lunch break.

It’s interesting watching everyone’s ways of dealing with the waiting. Lots of folks are reading. A few, like me, brought their laptops and were lucky enough to get the half dozen or so desks in the front. Others are just chatting and wandering around the room. I heard a woman sitting near me tell someone, “I’m bored.”

The person answered, “Yeah, this sitting around waiting is nerve-racking.”

But she said, “No, I mean I’m bored, in general. With life.”

Her honest expression reminded me of my current struggle, which I wrote about in Friday’s post, “I Want a Rush.” By the way, I really appreciate Katie and Anne Marie’s comments on that post, and I’m definitely going to check out the book Anne Marie recommended, Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris. In this interview, Norris says acedia is not the same thing as depression. Listen to the first 2 Q&As in the interview:

Q: Let’s start out with “acedia.” What is it?

A: It’s an ancient word that basically means the inability to care, even to the extent that you can’t care that you don’t care anymore. It’s sort of a really drastic, nasty form of indifference.

Q: It’s not depression?

A: Not exactly. There really are distinctions. One of the things I had to tackle in writing this book was to talk about why depression is not exactly the same as acedia, even though it shares a lot of the same symptoms, and I believe that depression is a medical condition — clinical depression — that can be treated by medicine and therapy and a number of — there are a number of ways to treat it. But acedia is something, I think, that’s just more common. Most of us probably have experienced it in some form or another. When you’re totally restless and totally bored but can’t think of anything that you want to do, or you are restless in another way and you try to escape from it by becoming hyperactive, being a workaholic, that’s another form that acedia takes.

I can relate to several of those forms. In fact, they just called a third group of jurors to a case, and my name wasn’t called and I was disappointed because, you guessed it, I’m bored sitting here waiting. Even with two books, a Blackberry, and a MacBookPro, I’m bored. Why?

Could have something to do with the fact that last night I watched part of “The Runaway Jury” on DVD while working out on the elliptical. It was funny that the judge who spoke to us this morning asked if anyone was reading that book and recommended we not read it! It makes this whole experience sound a lot more exciting than it usually is. And while I should be grateful if I’m not called and therefore might be excused early, thus inconvenienced less, I’m actually wishing to be called because of the excitement. (I know, I know… be careful what you wish for.)

One of the books I brought with me today is called Conquering Depression. I’ve read it before. It’s one of those books that’s good to pick up every now and then and just read a few selections, for inspiration. For reminders. But I actually found help on the first page of the Introduction, just by being reminded of a few truths:

“Modern society is Godless. Godless not because man doesn’t need God, but because he forgets God, being too busy “developing” the earth. Forgetfulness of God causes self-indulgence and thus insensitivity to the world around man. Insensitivity causes artificial loneliness, and self-centeredness enhances emptiness in self-worship. When man estranges himself from God, the source of life, life on earth becomes meaningless, or meaningful only in the sense of self-gratification. But since the soul by its nature needs God, the loneliness becomes unbearable for the soul and produces dissatisfaction, despondency and despair. Depression (a modern word for hopelessness) is a kind of man-induced boredom….”

Artificial loneliness.

Man-induced boredom.

Both of those terms stir me to take a long look at my soul, dark and dirty as it is. And what I often find, especially when I feel lonely or bored, is that I’m focused on me and not on others, and certainly not on God. And while I do believe that a person can be clinically depressed and in need of medication or therapy in order to even be able to call on God or friends from the depths of the darkness. I may even be in need of such help at times. But today I want to consider the possibility that much of my loneliness is artificial, and much of my boredom is self-induced.

Often when reading materials about how to overcome depression or boredom, the instructions, especially if they’re written by or for monastic’s, include things like, “stay in your cell and pray,” and “don’t move from place to place.” More or less, just gut it out. And maybe sometimes that’s the answer. But today I liked these words from Conquering Depression:

“Zeal is acquired by variety in our occupations—that is, by turning from one task to another. And so you must do as follows: pray, then perform some manual task, then read a book, then meditate on your spiritual condition, on eternal salvation, and so on. And do these things alternately. If dejection grips you fiercely, leave your room and walking up and down, meditate on Christ; lift your mind to God and pray. Thus dejection will leave you.”

I like the practicality of this advice. And now I’ll put it into action, but not by my choice—they finally called my name to go over to one of the criminal courts for possible jury selection. Later!

It’s later now. 5 hours later. After a fascinating afternoon watching the jury selection process, but not be selected, I was dismissed, being told to return tomorrow morning to the Jury Assembly Room where the process will start all over again. I wasn’t even interviewed. Even when about 6 of the first group of potential jurors were disqualified, my name didn’t come up as a potential replacement. It felt a bit like not being chosen for kick ball back in elementary school. Sitting in the Jury Assembly Room is just not as exciting as being in the courtroom. Oh, well, back upstairs to work out on my elliptical and watch the rest of John Grisham’s “Runaway Jury!”

Then at 9 p.m. I’ll get another fix—“Raising the Bar.” No artificial loneliness or man-induced boredom for me tonight! (My favorite defense attorneys? Jerry Kellerman , played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Roberta "Bobbi" Gilard, played by Natalia Cigliuti.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

I Want a Rush

A few weeks ago I published a post about Anne Lamott's book, Operating Instructions. Well, today I picked the book back up to read a couple of passages to my best friend over the phone. I called her because I was frustrated with my inability to write. Everything is in order: The Ruffled Apron (personal chef, Caitlyn Manning) prepared our meals for the week; I'm spending at least 45 minutes a day on the elliptical machine; a contractor came yesterday to bid on renovations to our master bathroom; a roofer is coming tomorrow to check out the leak in our roof; a call was made to American Home Shield Warranty to line up a plumber for the 3 drains that won't drain; and all my mother's paperwork (bills) is up to date. House and body are taken care of. Oh, and my soul? I went to Vespers Wednesday night and liturgy for Tranfiguration yesterday (I even cooked the coffee hour brunch myself) and I'm working at saying my daily prayers and I'm going to Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God tonight. Everything is in order, so I can sit down and write, right?

So what's blocking me?

Lamott said it well in Operating Instructions:

"I wish I felt more like writing.... The slow pace and all this rumination wear me down and bore me and make me desperately want a hit of something, of anything. Adrenaline, say, or a man to fantasize about or have drama with, or some big professional pressure, like a deadline I'm just barely going to be able to make. I want to check out. I do not want to be in the here and now with god and myself and all that shit. I know that this is where all the real blessings and payoffs are, that there is a good reason they call the now 'the present.' I want to learn to live in the now, I want to learn to breathe my way into it and hang out there more and more and experience life in all its richness and realness. But I want to do it later, like maybe sometime early next week. Right now I want a rush."

That's how I feel right now. Keeping my butt glued to this chair to do the hard work of laying down the first draft of this book is a slow and lonely process. I know I'm looking at months of this isolation in order to do this, and with only a chapter outline and two pages actually drafted, I'm already bored. It's been a few months since I had an essay published, so I'm tempted to set aside this lengthier work and whip out something quick and dirty and send it out for publication, hoping for the rush that seeing my name in print brings.

On another page Lamott talks about the difficult task of ASKING FOR HELP:

"I'm learning to call people all the time and ask for help, which is about the hardest thing I can think of doing. I'm always suggesting that other people do it, but it really is awful at first. I tell my writing students to get into the habit of calling one another, because writing is such a lonely, scary business, and if you're not careful you can trip off into this Edgar Allan Poe feeling of otherness."

I remembered her words today when I called my friend to talk. Not just to chat, but to vent. It's always that way when we decide to really ask for help, isn't it? We start out with superficial, perky, chatter and suddenly we're on a roll with all our depression, anger, and frustration. And if we're blessed to have a friend who can hear us, really hear us, it's a healing call. Like when Lamott called a friend from AA when she was craving a rush and the friend said, "Yeah, yeah, I get it, I've done it. But I think each step of the way you gotta ask yourself, Do I want the hit or do I want the serenity?"

That reminds me of something my spiritual father has said to me many many times over the years, when I show up in his office, or sometimes at the Sacrament of Confession, with an outpouring of my struggles with boredom and temptations to numb my present reality with something. Here's what he says: "What do you want?"

He doesn't mean "what do you want?" as in do you want a drink or a 1986 Mercedez convertible or a new house or a half gallon of ice cream. (All of which I want every day, by the way.) What he means is, "What do you really want? Do you want the quick fix more than the real thing? Do you want the lie or the truth? Do you want the easy way or the long, hard, meaningful way that brings peace? Do you want God or not?" (These are my words, not his.)

So now the day is almost over and I'm trying to take a deep breath and let go of feelings of failure, because it was a good day. Why was it a good day? Because I called a friend, and she was there and she heard me, and God was there in her love and wisdom. Do I wish I had called her before I had a drink? Honestly, no. Maybe next time I'll make the call first. But today, at least I made it.

And tonight I'll take my boredom and brokenness and pour it out to the Mother of God at the Paraclesis Prayers at St. John. And she, who said, "Be it done unto me according to Thy will," will understand.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Shut Up and Write

Yesterday I took my laptop to the library and sat up on the third floor for three hours, with a beautiful view of the treetops and virtual silence around me. It was time to get back to serious writing, and the distractions at home were just too great for me to overcome. Not to mention the fact that the power in our house went out for about two hours, leaving me with no air conditioning or computer power.

So I settled in and got out the essay I wrote this spring that will become part of the next volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. I’m going to expand the essay to a full length memoir: Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancer and Nuns: A spiritual expat from the “Christ-haunted South” finds healing through art and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Comfortable enough at my library table, I began the work around 12:30 p.m. But soon I found myself checking my Facebook Page. And then my email. Even Twitter. It reminded me of the story about the monk who wanted to leave one monastery for another, thinking he could escape his sins. Turned out they hopped into his backpack and followed him. By 2 p.m. I had actually done a little research, outlined 14 chapters for the book, and was ready to begin the actually writing. An hour later I had drafted a whopping 2 pages of the first chapter. Now, from a writer’s point of view, this isn’t a bad day’s work. But from a personal, psychological, and spiritual point of view, it was a non-stop battle with “Soul Chatter,” and failed efforts to “Shut Up and Pray,” and finally, to find peace through remembering lessons learned from Anne Lamott’s wonderful book, Grace Eventually.

I think a lot of my struggle has to do with learning anew, every day, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom says, to live in the present:

“What you have got to do is to be so completely in the present that all your energies and all your being are summed up in the word now.”

In his book, Beginning to Pray, Met Bloom gives an exercise to practice being still and learning not to “fidget inwardly” and not to be a slave to the clock. (He was a psychologist as well as an Orthodox Bishop.) He continues:

“Once you have learned not to fidget, then you can do anything, at any speed, with any amount of attention and briskness, without having the sense of time escaping you or catching up with you.”

His words remind me of my friend, Caitlyn, who came to our house Monday to prepare our meals for the week. (Caitlyn, “The Ruffled Apron,” has just started a personal chef business.) She spent about 4 ½ hours in my kitchen, while I worked at my computer, worked out on my elliptical machine, and then showered and dressed for a party. Several times I would go into the kitchen to check on her (and taste the meals in progress!) and once I asked, “Would you like me to turn on the TV or some music?” She answered, “No,” that she was happy in her “cooking zone.” I can’t even imagine that place being a happy zone, since I don’t enjoy cooking. But later it hit me that Caitlyn was content doing one thing at a time. She was in the present, paying attention to her work. Who knows whether or not she hums music silently in her mind while working, thinks about other things she needs to do, or even says the Jesus Prayer silently while chopping vegetables. I didn’t ask. I just observed a quiet joy and attention to the now.

That’s where I want to be—in the writing zone. Or the exercise zone. Or the time with a friend zone. Just one place at a time. Other noises off.

I think it’s going to take lots of practice to get there. Just like prayer. This
morning when I went in the dining room (where our icon corner is) to say my Morning Prayers, I first read a brief summary of the life of Saint Nonna, who is commemorated today. She was the mother of Saint Gregory the Theologian. But that wasn’t what impressed me most about her life. It was this simple line:

“The first thing she did each morning was pray, believing that her prayers would be answered.”

And so I was encouraged, again, to stand still in font of my icons and pray. And try to listen for the still voice of God. I asked him to bless all that I do today—my writing, my interactions with my husband and friends, the myriad of details and paperwork involved in everyday life, my time tonight at Vespers and fellowship with my brothers and sisters at St. John. And then I walked into my office and sat down at my computer to write this blog post. Now I’m ready for the rest of my day. To try to be present with each activity, with each person I encounter. To try and cut the soul chatter and be in the zone, one activity at a time. Here goes….

Monday, August 3, 2009

Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy!

"Be Young! Be Foolish! Be Happy!" When the hit song by The Tams (they are still playing!) was played by The Chill, the band at my 40th high school reunion this weekend, a huge group of 58-year-olds hit the dance floor with abandon. Including me. It was such a rush, dancing to all those great old songs with friends from high school, some I've known since elementary school, actually. But the words weren't lost on me. I reflected, even as I danced, on how much I wanted to "be happy" when I was a teenager. I always looked around at others who seemed to be happy, and wondered why it was so elusive for me. During the weekend I had several good chats with folks who remembered me as being "popular and happy" .... and they were shocked to find out I was so insecure.

Two of my best "supporters" during the weekend were Claire Hines Phillips and Pat Pray Claire, Pat and I (and Phyllis Ainsworth Toler, who didn't make it to the reunion) pledged Tri-Delt together at Ole Miss in 1969. But they were close friends and I was a bit on the outside. They reached out to me during the reunion weekend as we talked about those years. I'm learning how much my childhood wounds (family) set me up for unhappiness in high school. It wasn't my classmates' fault. Like the friend I mentioned in my last post said, we were just trying to survive.

That was Robert Bass, in this picture with me. Robert has been exploring painting and writing and we've enjoyed emailing the past few months. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Friday night's informal party was hosted by Bob Biggs at his lovely home near Millsaps College, just a few blocks from my first apartment back in 1970. Bob has a huge covered patio that feels like an extension of the house, with ceiling fans and comfy furniture. A great place for summer nights, even in Mississippi! Thanks for the hospitality, Bob! (Somehow I don't have a picture of Bob... I'm trying to grab a few pics from other classmates' Facebook pages but can't figure out how yet.)

One of my closest friends from junior high and high school was Leslie Wilkinson. She married Tom Sherrill, and they have a veterinary practice in Texas. If there was one friend I identified with the most during high school, it was Leslie. I wanted to be like her in so many ways. She was smart and independent and didn't seem to care what people thought about her. But Friday night we didn't talk about high school. We shared stories about our adopted children--my three and her two. Who knew, 40 years ago, that one day we would share this bond? What a joy to see Leslie again! Here are Leslie, Nancy Price, and me.)

Sandra Kerr Jarrett was another close friend, in the same "circle" with Leslie, and also Kit Whitsett Fields. Also in some of these pictures. Kit used to visit my mother at Ridgeland Pointe Assisted Living Home before we had to move her to a nursing home. She went regularly to see Kay Wilkinson's mom (Kay lives in Huntsville, Alabama) but later let me know she also visited with Mom. What a gift. Louise Wise and Sharon Scott were other friends from that "group" and it was really wonderful to visit, although briefly at the end of the evening on Saturday, with Sharon and Sandra, both of whom married ministers. Sharon reminded me of a late night sitting in the car after a Bible study talking about whether or not we could really know if we were "saved." She said that I helped her believe when her faith was weak. I had no idea. Her words washed over my soul like oil on a wound. I had been jealous of Sharon for years because she got cheerleader at Murrah and I didn't, and at the time I was deluded into believing that being a cheerleader would make me happy. It didn't seem like a big deal to her. I had been a cheerleader for two years in junior high and then didn't make it in high school. Probably my biggest disappointment in life to that point. God knew I didn't need one more false god to replace real love. But, ouch!

It's hard to write about the weekend and try to tie the photos into the text, because it was such an emotional time for me, and the pics are all about smiles and hugs and being happy. Like these, with another dear friend, Brenda Logan Eddy, who was a bridesmaid in my wedding, and who also has an adopted daughter now, from China. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet her daughter this weekend... we missed each other at lunch at "The Auditorium" on Saturday by a few minutes.

Other bridesmaids from my wedding in June of 1970 didn't make the reunion: Sally Sherman Brown, Kathy Moore Kerr, and Penny Shelton Knight. I really missed seeing all of them. Here they are, along with my Maid of Honor, Jan Connors, from the class of 70, and my sister-in-law, Cathy Cushman. Left to right: Sandra Kerr, Kay Wilkinson, Sally Sherman, Jan Connors, me, Kathy Moore Kerr (she was married one week before me!), Penny Shelton, Brenda Logan, and Cathy Cushman. Bride and maids ranged in age from 15 to 18!

These were the "tea girls" at my wedding, all but 2 from the class of 69. Left to right; Kathy Fitts, Margaret Irby, Phyllis Ainsworth, Sharon Scott, Pat Pray, Jan Worthen, Nancy Johnson, Elizabeth Cochran, Claire Hines, Louise Wise and Karen Himes. (Nancy and Jan were a year older... Jan was my "Big Sister" in Tri Delt.)

Okay, back to the reunion. Other great re-connections were with Anne York, who was editor of our school newspaper, "The Hoofbeat," and Johnny Bise, a close friend from "Bible study days." I worked on the paper with Anne, and had dreams of being a reporter at one point, or an editor.

Back to early childhood, Sally McClintock Thompson and I lived on the same street in first grade and went to Boyd Elementary together that one year. Then my family built a house in a new subdivision and I went to Spann Elementary for grades 2-6. There were quite a few friends from Spann there... including Anne Evans, Alice Holder, Jan Mullins, Guy Robinson, Roy Trask and Brenda Barrett. But I guess the friend I had known the longest was Sally, from first grade.

Okay, if there's a thread here I've lost it, so I'll just keep rambling. Another "best friend" from high school was John Studdard, who showed up late with his wife, Nancy, who had to go to a wedding party first. (Hence the dressy duds.) John and I were co-business managers of the school newspaper our senior year, which was kind of funny since I couldn't do math. At all. I'm a writer for Pete's sake! I've got this silly little "ribbon" in a scrapbook from that year that John made for me one day. It says: "To Susan Johnson, for doing her math homework one day in a row." (I think he helped me pass math, actually.)

The black and white photo is from the Hall of Fame pics in our annual. Anyway, it was great to see John, and also Nancy, who taught aerobics with me at Bill Johnson's Phidippides Sports for a few years! (I was blown away to find out that Nancy and Kit are both still teaching aerobics!) Oh, and I had a great time with Bonnie Stevenson McClellan, too. Bonnie also taught with me at Phildippides for a while.

Also fun to catch up with another childhood friend, Gail Jones Pittman. Gail has a successful dinnerware design business and also works for Southern Living Magazine. I told her a little about my writing, and she shared a great story. Her personal trainer a few years back was Jill Connor Browne. She used to share funny stories with Jill when they were working out, and Jill used some of Gail's anecdotes in her first book! Gail asked me why I didn't write short stories and novels like Jill's, and I tried to explain that I can't write fiction and I don't have a sense of humor.

I'll just trod along in my essays and memoirs.... The old photo is Gail and me at Camp Rockbrook, in 6th grade!

I mentioned earlier going to lunch at "The Auditorium." It's a great new restaurant inside what used to be Duling Elementary School. Lots of cute shops down the halls. I sat with Cissy Jackson Carter, who later showed me what had been her 4th grade classroom and is now a florist. Also enjoyed seeing Buster and Lacey Corley, Jennifer and Steve Sampson (Jen lived down the street from me from 2nd through 12th grade and Steve was the first boy I ever kissed, in 4th grade, I think:-), Lina Yates, Sally VanDevender, Claire and Logan Phillips, Bonnie and Walter McClellan, A.B. Clark, Robert Bass and others at lunch. (The Corleys, Sampsons, McClellans and Phillips are among a group of couples who are both classmates.)

Okay, too much rambling... I will say that I didn't realize 'til we got home that my husband is not in ANY of these photos because he took most all of them. He was such a great sport all weekend. Fortunately he knew a lot of folks because we dated during my senior year, and he also connected with a few folks in the medical world, which was fun for him. Throughout the weekend I think I had chats with about 40 people, and at least said hello briefly to another 60 or so, of the over 200 folks who turned out. (Our class had over 400.) Robert Bass put together a great video which I enjoyed, and someone else (sorry I can't remember who!) did a nice memorial to the 26 classmates we lost since 1969. As we say in the Orthodox Church, "May their memories be eternal."

Thanks so much to A.B. Clark and her committee for all their hard work making our 40th reunion so great! Go 'stangs!