Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Obedient Imagination

It was my good fortune/fate to serve on one of seven panels scheduled for the first “slot” (9:00 – 10:30 a.m.) on the first morning of the 2009 Southern Women Writers’ Conference in Berry, Georgia, September 24-26. I say “fate” because there were lots of folks still arriving, finding their way (on this 26,000-acre campus!) and registering on Thursday morning. The early birds were then dispersed amongst these seven panels, with only a small handful landing in the “Multimedia Room,” Ford 128.

The small “audience” lost significance as Tom Dasher of Berry College met the three of us—myself, Amy Pardo from Mississippi University for Women, and Eleanor Hershey Nickel from Fresno Pacific University in California—and we began to exchange stories. I laughed as Tom told us that he got caught up in reading my blog in preparation for introducing me, and accidently pushed something that began to print it… and only after 50 pages or more soaked up and wasted his ink did he, in frustration, unplug his printer.

Amy, Eleanor and I had corresponded by email prior to the conference, and it was really fun to participate with them on this panel. Amy is quite the techy, so when the audio-visual guy (who was very nice) couldn't make our jump drives connect to the system (we both had Power Points slides) tiny little Amy—in her shiny polished cotton pants, heels, and sleeveless ruffled blouse—just pulled the equipment out of the cabinet, got down on the floor and found the right ports for our jumps and voila! We were good to go.

Amy presented an academic paper about Sarah Ann Ellis Dorsey, a 19th century Natchez, Mississippi, writer. I thought about Barry Hannah’s critiques of our writing during our Wednesday afternoon sessions in Oxford this summer, when he would say, “Who cares?” and try to teach us that we have to make our readers care about the characters in our stories. Amy asked, “Why care?” about the privileged society of the 19th century south, noting that Dorsey was the first woman in the Academy of Science and was a model in breaking with privilege I order to create community… in order to actually help the oppressed.

Eleanor, a pop culture specialist, became interested in Jan Karon’s “Mitford novels” and the way she represents the South. Her comments on the “ambivalent regionalism” in Karon’s novels reflects, in my opinion, her lack of actual experience living as a Southerner. Or maybe there are actually sub-cultures in the South, because my experience growing up in Mississippi is completely different from the community Karon describes in her Mitford series, set in North Carolina. I did love one of her comments: “The South is diminishing due to consumerism, bad taste, and urban sprawl.” Lord, save us!

I followed Amy and Eleanor’s presentations, and the small group listening seemed to appreciate my essay, “Are These My People?” and I even ran into some of them at other venues throughout the weekend and they had told others about it, so that was a good sign.

One of my favorite keynote speaker of the weekend followed close on the heels of my panel. Just before lunch on Thursday, Allison Hedge Coke, mixed-blood (native American Indian) poet and memoirist, gave what would end up being my favorite presentation of the entire conference. I loved her poetry, but purchased her courageous memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer: A Story of Survival, and have only had time to read the first few pages, but I’m so hooked. Allison and her sister were raped and otherwise abused as children, and learned to dissociate. Their mom was schizophrenic. Allison said writing memoir is like shadow-boxing. I get that.

Next, at the Thursday lunch session, Melissa Fay Greene spoke. This is a woman who has adopted five children in addition to having four biological children. One of her adopted sons, Jesse, is from Bulgaria. The other four are Ethiopian orphans who lost their parents to AIDS. Her book, There Is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Her Country’s Children (2007) is the story of Haregewoin, Teferra, an Orthodox Ethiopia woman who lost her own children but opened her home to over 300 foster children over the years.

One of the afternoon panels that I chose to attend was “The Violent South,” and included Liz Thompson from the University of Memphis, presenting her thesis-in-progress: “Some Unheard of Thing: How Incest Became Convention in Southern Women’s Writing.” Liz and I hooked up later for lunch (panelist Casey Kayser from LSU and a friend of hers who studied at Rhodes in Memphis (sorry I can’t remember her name) and I was intrigued with her journey researching fiction and nonfiction writers who were abused. That seemed to be a theme all weekend.

Another panel, “Writing and Sustaining Domestic Arts,” included a presentation by Laura Sloan Patterson from Seton Hall, “Fashioning Another South and Another Self: O’Connor, Welty, Walker and the Creation of Clothing.” Her insightful comments about Flannery O’Connor’s dressing habits made me want to revisit my first effort at memoir (Dressing the Part) ... maybe some day….

During a coffee break Friday morning I got together with Jackson, Mississippi, native, Ellen Ann Fentress. We both grew up in Jackson (she still lives there) but she’s about five years younger, so we never met until the conference. Ellen Ann won the Emerging Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction (yep, the one I entered, but didn’t win, so I was happy a fellow Jacksonian won!) and we had a great time sharing our journeys.

Another encounter outside the official conference schedule was coffee later Friday night with Rebecca Phillips. I’ve known Rebecca’s parents and grandparents for years—her grandfather, Fr. Andrw Moore, is an Orthodox priest, and his wife, Dannie, and I have been friends for many years. Rebecca is a sophomore at Berry College, so it was fun to hear about her life and about the school from a student’s point of view. What a great school! Now I’m promoting it for friends who have teenagers who are beginning to look at colleges.

Friday’s luncheon speaker, Judith Ortiz Cofer, brought yet another element to the table. As a native Puerto Rican now living in Georgia, Judith has published lyrical prose and poetry as well as a book about writing. Her presentation was full of humor and inspiration. “Our journey towards ‘casa,’—home—defines us, and we are not whole and complete until we find that home.” Her words confirmed the importance of my current search for “my people.”

Another panel I enjoyed was “Flannery O’Connor’s South: Race and Religion.” Sara Gordon, an expert on O’Connor, brought a lot to the table at the panel, as well as giving a plenary session just before dinner on Friday. I was happy to sit with Sarah at lunch on Friday, where she autographed my copy of her scholarly work, Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination.

One of Sarah's comments really hit a chord with me: “We must recognize that we are broken if we are going to be fixed—there must be an element of the physical present—which is true in all of O’Connor’s works. She rejects the Manichean heresy, that material things are sinful.” I also love this about O’Connor… the way she infuses her art—her fiction—with her very physical faith, which is what I’m trying to do with my own writing. She has set the bar high.

At dinner Friday night I was blown away by keynote speaker Connie May Fowler. I’d been chatting with Connie May on Facebook for a while, but had no idea how dynamic she would be as a speaker. I haven’t read her work yet, but she’s now on my list—especially her memoir, When Katie Wakes. Another battered/abused woman, Connie May founded Women With Wings Foundation, and has done much to help educate and heal this epidemic in our world. In her fictionalized memoir, Before Women Had Wings, she talks about how her craving for sugar is bred by the sadness in her life.

She talked about how she learned to dissociate when violence was happening, but also to pay attention to the details, so that she could write them. Her writing—her art—has been her healing. But as a child she disappeared into books. The world of books provided not only an escape but a role model and hope. One of her favorites was Strawberry Girl by Lois Linsky, about a poor family in Florida who, although they were poor, had love. She imagined herself in that family. Her sister, on the other hand, has chosen to block out her childhood memories, and has starved herself with anorexia.

One affect of abuse is to make a woman feel worthless, and even guilty when we experience success. When Connie May’s book, Before Women Had Wings, was made into a movie by Oprah (and Connie May was asked to write the screen version) she thought, “I don’t deserve to be there… to get to do this.”

Connie May encouraged us, as women and as writers, to “operate as an artist first” or your story won’t be successful.” Her words reminded me of Scott Morris, who told us at the Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshops in Oxford, Mississippi in 2008 that we have to “get up and above our lives” in order to write them as art. She said that “stories save lives and we must keep writing but do it as artists and not as confessors.”

She also told us that “your abuser tries to steal your voice, but speaking or writing is the way to find your voice.”

One more concept that she shared is that of having a “shadow book”—someone else’s book that puts you into the river of shared life with others on the journey. I really identified with that, and now Connie May’s memoirs will join my growing stack of “shadow books.”

Open Mic at 333 on Broad on Friday night was so much fun… about two dozen writers read from their work while we enjoyed drinks and the ambience of this quaint little bar. Afterwards some of us enjoyed the music and dancing upstairs, a perfect break from the intensity of an incredible but “heavy” weekend. I’ll post about our overnight visit with relatives in Atlanta and our time in Savannah (where I’m posting from now) with our son, Jonathan, soon… but for now I’ll end with my renewed resolve to do as my heroine, Flannery O’Connor said: “You have got to learn to paint with words.” And I think Sarah Gordon would add... to do it with an obedient imagination.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When in Rome

I had never heard of Rome, Georgia until a few months ago when Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, editors of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality,encouraged me to submit an essay to the Southern Women’s Writers Conference at Berry College… in Rome, Georgia. Jennifer and Wendy are the editors who have accepted my essay, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” for their second anthology of All Out of Faith, and I had met them at the Southern Festival of Books in 2006 and again at Southern Writers Reading in Fairhope, Alabama, in 2008. Did anyone notice that the word, “Southern,” appeared 5 times in this paragraph? There’s a theme here….

My essay—“Are These My People?”—was accepted for the SWWC and here I am, reading on a panel Thursday morning and moderating another panel tomorrow afternoon. And looking forward to hooking up with Phyllis Nobles of Oxford, whom I met at a Creative Nonfiction Conference
in March of 2008. Phyllis is reading a creative nonfiction piece on the panel I’m moderating tomorrow afternoon.

So, this morning I started driving from Memphis, in the rain, but the closer I got to Georgia, the more beautiful the scenery got… mountains and lakes and rivers and green everywhere. And then I saw it… around 5 p.m. I drove over a little bridge into the quaint, historic town of Rome, Georgia, and checked into the Hawthorne Suites at River Crossing and found the perfect marriage of old and new. The architecture of the old warehouses and storefronts have been preserved and converted into cute shops and restaurants, and in the case of the Hawthorne Suites, a classy little boutique hotel. My suite has exterior brick walls on two sides, extra wide 24-pane windows, and a view of the river from the bedroom. Downstairs the “lobby” is really part of a lovely indoor mall, with art galleries and shops, which I can't wait to explore in the next few days!

A half block away is Broad Street, where I ate dinner at Harvest Moon CafĂ© tonight and met Helen Silverstein, Managing Editor of a new online literary journal, Southern Women’s Review. They’re looking for creative nonfiction submissions, so you can bet I’ll be sending an essay their way soon.

Just behind the hotel is the Coosa River, where the Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers converge. This is the site where travelers settled the town in 1834, although some believe that Hernando De Soto came here in the 1500s. Anyway, it’s beautiful on the bridge.

And looking back at the fountain in the plaza behind the main street, where children run and play in the water.

The people of Rome are proud of their little town, which was given the distinction of “The Most Livable Small Town in the Southeast” by the New Rating Guide to Life in America’s Small Cities in 1997. It received a Great American Main Street Award in 2003 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I think I could live in this suite. The living/dining room, kitchen and (huge) bath are on one level, and the bedroom is up three steps to enhance the view from the windows which line two sides of the room. Yep, I’m happy here.

I stopped by Berry College (3 miles from the hotel) to register and the campus is also beautiful. It reminds me of Rhodes College (in Memphis) with the stone castle-like buildings, but on rolling hills.

Driving up I was welcomed by this sign…

And then these boys, who must be the Berry College Track Team. (Reminds me of a poem by Beth Ann Fennelly, who teaches at the University of Mississippi, about the time she first saw the young male students at Ole Miss out jogging…. ) When I told my hubby about seeing them today, he reminded me that he competed on the Berry College Campus back in the 1960s when he ran cross country track for Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia. The campus was the sight for regional cross country meets. I can see why—it’s beautiful.

In the morning I’ll pick up a Latte around the corner at The Nest Coffee shop, which gives 100% of its profits back to the community. Yes. It’s a 501c3 non profit corporation, and has about 53 volunteers who work there. How’s that for a shot in the arm for the economy? I’ll be stopping by the Nest as often as possible for the next few days. When in Rome....

Check back in a couple of days for a post about my experiences at the Southern Women Writers Conference.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

There's an App for That

You know the commercial for the I Phone that says, “There’s an app for that”? For some reason that ad was on my mind this weekend, when there were so many activities going on at our church, St. John Orthodox, in midtown Memphis. Please forgive me if this comes across as sacrilegious, but I couldn’t help it. Each time one of the events was happening, or about to happen, I heard this phrase in my head.

Need your baby blessed?
There’s an app for that—it’s called Baptism. In the Orthodox Church, we baptize newborns by immersion, and that’s what happened to Brooke Elizabeth White on Saturday night.

Her Godmother, Anne Dugan, participated in the sacrament with Brooke, who was baptized by our pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn. Many years, Brooke Elizabeth!

Sorry I didn’t get any pics of Brooke being immersed, but I only had my cell phone with me, which is why this pic is so grainy.

But here’s a couple of pictures of other infant baptisms, so you can get the full image.

Need your relationship blessed? There’s an app for that—it’s called Marriage. We had two

weddings at St. John this summer, Sally and Jason’s (the first picture was taken during the betrothal part of the ceremony, in this case, in the back of the nave)…

And this one was taken from the balcony, of the entire wedding party.

… and just a couple of weeks ago, Barbara and Mikael’s wedding. (again, I only have pics from a cell phone, but you get the idea.) This morning Mikael and Barbara had the "removal of the wedding crowns" ceremony, which happens when the newlyweds return to church after their honeymoon. Marriage is held in high esteem in the Orthodox Christian Church, and a cause for great celebration, whether the bride and groom are young and just starting out, like Jason and Sally, or uniting later in life, like Mikael and Barbara. Many years to both couples!

Need your relationship with God blessed, as an adult convert to Orthodoxy?
There’s an app for thatChrismation.

This morning two women who have completed Catechism classes at St. John were Chrismated—Priscilla and Jill. Here they are with their sponsors, Alexandra and Laura, and with Father John Troy, our pastor. The term comes from Holy Chrism, or oil, that is used by the priest to anoint the different parts of the body, making the sign of the cross as he says, The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and the people respond, “Seal!” The meaning of this is described by Father Michael Buben:

The anointing of the forehead signifies the sanctification of the mind, or thoughts.
The anointing of the chest signifies the sanctification of the heart, or desires.
The anointing of the eyes, ears, lips signifies the sanctification of the senses.
The anointing of the hands and feet signifies their sanctification to good works and the walk in the way of His commandments.

Other sacraments are available in the Orthodox Church.

Need a funeral and burial service for a loved one? There’s an app for that—the Orthodox funeral and burial service is one of the most beautiful and moving services in all of Orthodoxy. But it’s not the end of services for the departed. We also pray Memorial Prayers at various intervals following the death of a loved one—3 days, 40 days, monthly, yearly. So, this morning we said prayers for my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway, who died eleven years ago Friday. You can read more about her death here.

Preparing the kolliva (boiled wheat) for the memorial prayers is something I love to do. Here’s a Greek recipe that’s similar to the one I use.

I’ve only found one grocery in all of Memphis that sells pelted wheat berries, like these.

The other main ingredients are raisins, nuts, honey, graham cracker crumbs, and powdered sugar.

After cooking the kolliva I took it to the church and covered it with graham cracker crumbs and powdered sugar, and placed it on a table on the solea, with three candles, representing the Holy Trinity.

Since we are still in the season of the Holy Cross, the cross (with a piece of the actually cross on which our Lord was crucified) remains in the middle of the nave, in front of the solea, where I placed the kolliva. The juxtaposition of the instrument of Christ’s death with the memory of Mary Allison’s was somehow comforting to me this morning. As we ate the kolliva during coffee hour, and tasted its sweetness (honey and sugar) I thought, “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” (I Corinthians 15:55)

Need help with your struggles with destructive addictive or sinful behaviors, passions out of control, envy, lust, anger? There’s an app for that—the sacrament of Confession. Every Saturday night after Great Vespers (and any time during the week by appointment with the priest) Orthodox Christians may offer their brokenness and pain to God in the healing sacrament of Forgiveness, also known as Confession. This morning when Father John Troy covered the baptismal candidates with his Epitrachelion (Stole) my six-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, asked me what he was doing. I explained that the ladies preparing for Chrismation had said their first Confession and Father John Troy was praying the prayers of Absolution for them:

"Whatever you have said to my humble person, and whatever you have failed to say, whether through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, may God forgive you in this world and the next.... Have no further anxiety; go in peace."

Every time I hear those words from my Father Confessor's lips, standing before the icon of Christ, having just poured out as much of my darkness and brokenness as I have the courage to bear, I feel the air returning to my lungs and the light of Christ beginning to shine into the dark crevices of my heart. What's that feeling? I guess it's hope. And sometimes I actually do "go in peace" from that place.

So, why do I return again to my sins? Because, as Father John Troy reminded us in his homily on the Cross this morning, since we are created in God's image, we have a will. We choose whether to take the easy way or the way of the Cross. We make this choice many times a day. And, as Father John said, "without the cross, we are like dead men walking."

I guess that means that the Cross itself is an "App," especially if you consider one of many definitions of "application": "the act of bringing something to bear," or this one: "a healing or curative agent."

Still think you need an I-Phone?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Glory to God For All Things

Today is the eleventh anniversary of the death of my Goddaughter, Mary Allison
Callaway. I did a post about Mary Allison last year, which you can read here. This coming Sunday we’ll be praying the Memorial Prayers for the Dead at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis. I’ll be making kolliva—the boiled wheat that Orthodox Christians share following memorial services. The wheat reminds us of Christ’s words: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24)

Instead of writing new thoughts about Mary today, I’m going to share an article I wrote for our parish newsletter, the Evangelist, back in 1998.

Glory to God For All Things

April 5, 1998, the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt, was a special day for Mary Allison Callaway, the twenty-year-old daughter of my close friend, Deborah Callaway, from St. Peter in Jackson, Mississippi. Mary had moved in with our family in January, and was working full time at UT Medical Group Call Center while taking classes at the University of Memphis. She planned to enter Occupational Therapy School next year after she completed her prerequisites. Having been Chrismated in March of 1987 together with the entire congregations of St. Peter (Jackson) and St. John (Memphis), Mary, like many of us, gradually learned about Orthodox traditions which help us in our spiritual growth. And so, eleven years later, she “chose” a patron saint—a fourth century ascetic named Mary of Egypt—who is also my patron.

During the nine months that Mary lived with us, we talked a few times about what the Church Fathers say about death—to live each day “with our death before us.” When my own father passed away in July, she joined with our family as we embraced the 40 days of mourning prescribed by the Orthodox Church for family and friends of the departed. We read the Psalter every day and prayed the Prayer for the Departed, both of which brought much comfort. What we didn’t know was that we would very soon have another opportunity to participate in this period of mourning.

On September 18, Mary was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi. She was on her way to visit her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in Indianola. It was her mother and grandmother’s birthdays. I stayed up most of that night, selecting clothes for her burial and packing up her icons and personal items from her room in our home to take to Jackson the next morning. God’s mercy was poured out on all of us from both St. John and St. Peter over the next three days, as we participated in the preparations for Mary’s burial, in the visitation, the vigil, the Trisagion Prayers and Last Kiss, and finally, on Monday morning, the funeral itself. Both Father John Henderson (St. Peter) and Father John Troy (Memphis) gave homilies that day, which, among other things, addressed the question most often asked when a young person dies: “Why Mary?” Those who were close to Mary knew the answer: “She was ready.” Mary had worked very hard for a brief but intense period of time to turn away from influences in the world which had tried to draw her away from the Kingdom of Heaven. Because of her struggles for godliness, I believe her heart was pure before God, even as St. Mary of Egypt and her Guardian Angel accompanied her before the throne of God. St. Theophan, in a book of letters written to a spiritual daughter who was about Mary’s age, gives a beautiful description of the soul of one who prepares to meet God: [quote abbreviated here]

The state of the soul is accurately reflected by its covering…. If within the soul are holy thoughts and feelings, then its covering is bright…. Allow me to ask you how the saint whose name you bear sees you, especially at present, when she is looking after you more attentively, because you turn to her more frequently? How does your guardian angel see you, and the Lord Himself?... How they see you in what you are in fact. For I cannot imagine that you are viewed from heaven as murky or gloomy…. You have a bright appearance. My sincere wish is that you always be that way, so that the inhabitants of heaven see you as being bright. Then from this life you will go directly to them…. What better example is there of a soul so bright than when it is Christian, pure I conscience and devoted to the Lord? When the conscience is pure, the fear of God fills the soul and keeps it inviolable. Then the Lord Himself, Who is everywhere and fills all things, visits that soul, and it becomes a light and shines like a small star.

I miss Mary very much. I miss her bubbly enthusiasm and her beautiful smile. I miss our late night talks. Most of all, I miss her presence in our home, where she was like a sister to my own children. I think that Father Bill will never forget the joy of her daily evening ritual before bedtime. If she could find Jason and Beth, she would bring them along with her and stand, smiling, in front of him and say, “May we have a blessing?” And after his blessing, she always wanted a “group hug” . . . . bringing our family together for a kiss of peace most evenings. Thank God for Mary, and the time God “loaned” her to our family.

So what about the pain? Yes, it’s still there . . . but rather than looking for ways to escape the pain, it seems that God grants us consolation through our suffering. During the final days before my father’s death this summer, I read a book by Matthew “the Poor,” who lived in the Monastery of St. Macarius in the desert in the late 1940s through the 1970s. The Communion of Love is a collection of his writings which was published in 1984. It is from one of these essays that I found some of the answers for which my soul hungered—specifically from his chapter, “Gethsemane and the Problem of Suffering.”

. . .there is no meeting more meaningful than that which takes place in the sharing of suffering, unless it be in the sharing of death itself when we touch immortality. The suffering that oppresses us in this life, whether in body or in spirit, was plumbed to the depths by Jesus . . . . it was in Gethsemane that Jesus made the irrevocable decision to accept the shame of humanity . . . . We meet together in Gethsemane and with that the problem of suffering, which has bowed our back and crushed our soul, comes to an end forever…. All you who suffer, be comforted, for your pain is no longer a result of sin, but of participation in love and in the sufferings of Gethsemane. All you who sorrow and weep, rejoice, for your grief is not unto death; in the sorrow of Christ it is reserved for the resurrection.

God’s grace was again abundant a few weeks after Mary’s death, as women from several different parishes gathered in Florence, Mississippi, for a retreat at which Mother Nektaria from St. Paul Skete in Memphis was the speaker. On Saturday morning we gathered at Twin Lakes Lodge to join Mother in an Akathist Payer, “Glory to God For All Things.” It is a hymn of praise written by a Russian priest, Gregory Petrov, while he was in prison camp in 1940, shortly before his death. The title is from the words of St. John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. It is a “song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings.” I’ll close with a few lines from this beautiful hymn, which brings comfort to those who suffer:

In the throes of sorrow and suffering, you bring peace, you bring unexpected consolation. You are the comforter. You are the love which watches over and heals us. To you we sing the song: Alleluia!
Glory to You, curing affliction and emptiness with the healing flow of time.
Glory to You, no loss is irreparable in you, give of eternal life to all.
Glory to You, promising us the longed for meeting with our loved ones who have died.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


In July of 2008, my essay, "Blocked," was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project's Literary Awards and published in their journal, sfWP. You can read it here. I did a blog post about it last July and inserted the essay in the text of the post, so you could also read it here.

And while I'm at it, I'll just go ahead and unabashedly toot my own horn by reprinting one of my favorite comments on that blog post, which I actually received as an email from "Gloria" on the west coast, and asked her permission to publish it:

I enjoy your blog and eagerly read it every time I receive it. I found you online when I was researching Mt Athos and you and your husband popped up. So I jumped on the wagon of your faithful blog readers!

It is hard to put into words the feelings and thoughts that I had when I read your essay "Blocked" but I'll try. I read it once last night and then talked my husband into letting me read it to him.

I was brought in with the first sentence. You captured my heart by the first paragraph. The more I read the more I wanted. I did not stop until the last word. I was inspired, convicted and relieved that I'm not the only one "out there" that fails during the week and then has to decline Eucharist when I so wanted to do what I needed to do to receive. I saw images as I read of the two icons in your studio. Your descriptions brought me into your home and I imagined the Archangel Michael's icon as you described. Your writing is my type of reading.

I kinda needed to read Gloria's comment today, because I was feeling down. Possibly more struggles with acedia. (Read my first two blog posts about acedia here, and here.)

OK, that's enough backstory. This morning, my dear friend and fellow iconographer, Kerry Sneed, came over to help me work on the icons of the Mother of God, Directress and Christ the Life Giver. I started these about two years ago. They are the ones that were interrupted when I got blocked. You can see the icon of the Mother of God in its early stages here. Kerry had done a good bit of the work with me, and I really wanted her to help me finish them. She's assisted me in teaching a few icon workshops at St. John, and she's really a gifted artist. The last workshop we held at St. John was in April of 2008. Here are several posts with photos:

Angels of the Lord, Finished!

Gold Leaf and Beyond

Preparing to Receive the Gold: The Beginning of Our Renewal

Gabriel's Day and Modest Copy Continued

When Kerry got here we sat and talked for over an hour, about our own spiritual journeys this past year. And then we prayed the iconographer's prayer together. And then we worked. I mixed pigments while Kerry studied the icon of Christ and the comments I had written on a sticky note over a year ago, about adjustments that needed to be made before I could continue the highlights.

Kerry's good with lines and tiny details, so she made some adjustments to the eyes and mouth of Christ so that I could come back later and finish the highlights. We didn't finish it today, but I'm ready to get back to work on it now that I've gotten unblocked.

While Kerry worked on the icon of Christ, I did an "egg wash" on the icon of the Mother of God, which will seal the egg tempera and make it receive the varnish more evenly. And we had my mother's recipe for homemade soup for lunch (prepared by our personal chef, Caitlyn) (aka The Ruffled Apron) and continued working on icons until she had to leave to pick up her daughter at school.

After she left, I went back upstairs to my studio and looked at the icons we had worked on. The Mother of God, Directress, is ready to be varnished. She points to Christ, Her Son, directing us to Him as our Lord and Savior. This is the icon we always use in the Orthodox services called the Paraclesis to the Mother of God and the Akathist to the Mother of God.

The icon of Christ needs more work, but I'm ready to embrace it now. You can see the details on the face aren't finished, and more highlights are needed on the face and hand.

As I stood there looking at the work God has blessed us to do today, I remembered the words to the Iconographer's Prayer that we had prayed at the beginning of our work, and I was humbled to think that my fellow parishioners at St. John would one day be reverencing these icons on the stands in the front of the nave. I'll close with that prayer:

O Divine Lord of all that exists, you have illumined the apostle and evangelist Luke with your Holy spirit, thereby enabling him to represent your most Holy Mother, the one who held you in her arms and said, “the Grace of Him who has been born of me is spread throughout the world.”

Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and my spirit. Guide the hands of your unworthy servant so that I may worthily and perfectly portray your icon, that of your Mother and all the Saints, for the glory, joy and adornment of your Holy Church.

Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons and who, kneeling devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel.

This I ask through the intercession of your most Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke and all the Saints. Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wolf Worms

I’m posting from Gulfport, Mississippi, where I’m visiting my precious Goddaughter, Katherine, and her family. They moved here from Memphis this summer, which is a return to her hometown for Katherine and a new adventure for Hardy and the kids. I can already see the benefits of the small town and closeness to the ocean, bayous, and just beauty of the outdoors. (It’s also a new adventure for Katherine, as she continues nursing school at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulfport branch.) The Thameses’ house is only a few blocks from the beach, and the tree-lined streets wind through cute little neighborhoods where kids are safe to ride their bikes and play with their friends ‘til their folks call them in for supper.

A brief aside: Hardy teaches at Gulfport High and sponsors the Key Club. He invited me to do a storytelling/writing workshop with his Key Club kids Wednesday afternoon. As their community service, they are going to produce an oral history project about Hurricane Katrina. They’ll be interviewing each other, family members and people out in the community, uncovering and giving voice to important stories.

It was fun to do a few writing exercises with these sharp high school seniors, and to listen to them read their three-minute paragraphs aloud. We discussed the writer’s intincts, like remembering, desiring and fearing, and the part they play in the work. Then we went over the basic elements of story, like plot, character, point of view, etc. I think they’ve got some great stories to tell and I can’t wait to read them.

All three of Hardy and Katherine’s kids attend the same elementary school. When we went to pick them up yesterday afternoon, Benji and a bunch of his friends had walked to the cute little park next door to the school to play football while waiting for their moms, who all pulled up and got out of their cars to visit with each other while the boys worked off some of their school day energy.

Those same pre-adolescent boys had been decked out in football pads and jerseys the night before for their 5th and 6th grade jamboree. Benji is Number 84.

Hardy’s mom and stepdad came over from Ocean Springs for the game, and Katherine reconnected with old friends from her childhood as we watched from the stands.

As the sun began to set and the stadium lights came on, I couldn’t help but enjoy the Gulf Coast’s very own “Wednesday Night Lights.” Later at a nearby Mexican restaurant, more childhood friends approached our table to speak to Katherine, as did Simon’s teacher’s aid. (He’s in kindergarden.) If it takes a village, they’ve got one here, and I like the way it looks and feels. (For more photos, check out my photo album, “Gulfport and Visit with Thameses” on Facebook.)

Mary has a new kitten, “Snickers,” that the Thameses are fostering and plan to adopt from the Human Society. She is so tiny and precious, but we had to take her to the vet yesterday because she had a sore behind her right ear that seemed to be getting worse. Turns out it’s a parasite called a “Wolf Worm.”

They kept her overnight to give her a little anesthesia while they removed it, because Wolf Worms have little spikes and pulling them out feels kinda like pulling a fish hook out. Hopefully she’s coming home today, with a coarse of antibiotics working on the germs left behind.

The Wolf Worm and its spikes got me to thinking about the spiritual and emotional parasites that dig into our hearts and minds. Like acedia. I haven’t read much more in the book (see beginning of review in an earlier post, here) but even the next few pages offer a lot to think about.

In Chapter IV, “Psyche, Soul and Muse,” Norris explores Aldous Huxley’s “Accidie,” in which he “traces, in a brisk tour de force, ‘the progress of acedia’ through the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Considered a demon or a vice by early Christian monks, acedia in the Renaissance was thought of as a physical ailment…. By the early eighteenth century, ‘accidie was still, if not a sin, at least a disease.’ But, Huxley adds, ‘a change was at hand.’ What the poet Matthew Green termed ‘the sin of worldly sorrow in 1837 was becoming ‘a literary virtue, a spiritual mode…. Then came the nineteenth-century and romanticism; and with them the triumph of the meridian demon. Accidie in its most complicated and deadly form, a mixture of boredom, sorrow, and despair, was now an inspiration to the greatest poets and novelists, and it has remained so to this day.’”

I found this to be a bit contradictory to Norris’ words in the previous chapter, about acedia’s negative effect on the writer:

“Acedia is a danger to anyone’s whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value. The world does not care if I write another word, and if I am to care, I have to summon all my interior motivation and strength. But the demon of acedia is adept at striking when those resources are at a low ebb…. Acedia’s genius is to seize us precisely where our hope lies, to tear away at the heart of who we are, and mock that which sustains us.”

I have been in a war with inner voices who are mocking my work as a writer for some time now. Those negative voices have been boring their way into my subconscious just like a Wolf Worm, sending their spikes in deeper and deeper. As I continue to draft new chapters of my third effort at writing a book, I find myself bored with my own stories, and wondering why on earth anyone else would want to read them. Writing group buddies are a big help here, as they read and critique my work in progress and encourage me that I do have something worth saying and that I’m improving in my efforts to craft the words. But I can’t help but wonder if I’m going to have to endure painful “surgery” to remove the Wolf Worm’s spikes. Unlike the tiny little kitten, “Snickers,” I can’t be anesthetized for the procedure. It’s probably going to hurt. Maybe it will involve giving up some things I “want” in order to stay the course and get the book written. Maybe it will involve facing some painful things in my past without always turning to my favorite comforters—food, alcohol, busy-ness. Maybe I’m going to begin to learn to be still and just endure the natural human emotions that we are often so quick to try to fix: sadness, boredom, regret, anxiety.

As I continue reading Norris’ book, I’m adding a different story to the mix. I’m about a hundred pages in to Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Dry, which chronicles his struggle with alcohol. When he checks into rehab because of the threat of losing his job in advertising, Burroughs comes face to face with his demons, and with something people without addictive struggles might find strange—his fear of sobriety:

“Sober. So that’s what I’m here to become. And suddenly, this word fills me with a brand of sadness I haven’t felt since childhood. The kind of sadness you feel at the end of summer. When the fireflies are gone, the ponds have dried up and the plans are wilted, weary from being so green. It’s no longer really summer but the air is still too warm and heavy to be fall. It’s the season between the seasons. It’s the feeling of something dying.”

That’s exactly how I feel today. Not just because it’s the week after Labor Day on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the kids are playing football but it’s still hot and muggy. But also because I can identify with Burroughs’ words about it being the “season between the seasons” and the “feeling of something dying.” I remember having this same feeling about fifteen years ago when I let go of a demon I was fighting and turned to God for help. I was sitting on a pew at church talking with my Father Confessor and telling him that I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff and I was supposed to jump across a great chasm to the other side, leaving behind the harmful but comfortable world of my demon, and trying to trust that something on the other side would feel as good as this demon had made me feel. He held my hand and helped me make the leap, which was, of course, only the first step. But sometimes the first step is the hardest. Especially when dealing with something as insidious as a Wolf Worm.

Thanks so much to everyone who commented on my last post about Acedia. I hope to hear from you again and from others who are kind and supportive enough to keep reading. Please leave a comment, whether or not you’ve read either of these books. It was one of your comments several weeks ago that sent me to the bookstore to purchase Norris’ book. It’s such a blessing to have fellow pilgrims on this journey.

I probably won't post again from the coast, as our weekend will be full of activities, like maybe the "Second Saturday" art walk in Bay St. Louis tomorrow, or the annual Biloxi Seafood Festival. The kids are going to a fishing rodeo in the morning with their grandparents, and the rest of the day is up for grabs. Every minute is a joy with the Thames family... like last night, when Hardy was playing his ukelele and all three kids got up and started dancing on the furniture and singing every word of "Eye of the Tiger." Yep.

So... I'll hit the road for Memphis on Sunday, stopping in Jackson to visit Mom at her nursing home. Have a great weekend, everyone!