Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Novel Idea

Today I'm blogging over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find. CLICK HERE to read my post, "A Novel Idea." Hint: it came to me at the beach last week.

I'm honored to be in such good company, with author/bloggers like Karin Gillespie (blog administrator,)River Jordan, Nicole Seitz, Joshilyn Jackson, Shellie Tomlinson, Kerry Madden, Ad Hudler, Kathy Patrick, Patti Callahan Henry and others.

And now for one more reminder that the Southern Wing and a Prayer Tour (aka River Jordan and Shellie Tomlinson) has landed at my house and will be hosting a "Parlor Book Talk" here tonight (Wednesday) at 6:30 p.m. So, if you're in the Memphis area, email me for an address and join us!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Living in Authentic Community: Behold the Bridegroom Comes

After a glorious Palm Sunday Feast at St. John yesterday, we began Holy Week with the first of the three Bridegroom Orthros Services last night.

I wrote about these in my post two years ago, which included a poem, “The Tinderbox.”

Back on the Letter “H” for “Humility” in my Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet, I talked about these services a little, and posted a number of icons of Christ, “The Bridegroom.” To clarify, the icon of Christ, “Extreme Humility,” (the one I wrote for St. John, at left) is used on Holy Friday, not during the Bridegroom services.

The icon of Christ, "The Bridegroom," is at right. It's the one the priest carried in procession last night and placed on the stand in the middle of the solea for us to venerate at the end of the service. There are small differences in the icons, but the Orthodox Church pays attention to those details (and our pastor definitely does) and there’s a reason to have the “right” icons out for the various services. I think that even when we don’t know or understand the reasons, the icons work on our souls, in concert with the “right” music, Church architecture, vestments, etc.

The somberness and beauty of the Bridegroom services works on the soul in a way like no other time of the Church year, at least for me. I’m so glad we have three of these in a row, because my heart needs lots of help right now. My old friend, acedia, is back in full force. (More posts about acedia are here, and here.)

Sometimes when depression grabs me, it’s about feeling fat, over-eating, over-drinking, or under-accomplishing (especially with my writing). And I’m feeling all of those things yapping at my heels right now. But I think the thing that hits me hardest is loneliness. In his book, Beauty For Ashes, Stephen Lloyd-Moffett talks about an important part of Orthodoxy that I think many of us grapple with in one way or another—community:

“In Greek, the word for Church, ἐκκλησία, derives from the ancient words for those who are ‘called out’.... The fierce individualism that dominates so many forms of Protestant thought is absent in Orthodoxy. Living in authentic communities is the very condition for human spiritual development. The path of salvation runs through and alongside others.»

Living «in authentic communities» with others is hard. It involves dying to self, setting aside ego, and loving and serving others without wanting/needing anything in return. I’m not good at any of these things. In fact, I’m really a hard person to be friends with. So I often hurt others and feel the wound in my own spirit. As a result, I think people keep me at an emotional distance, and maybe I do the same, just to avoid pain. When you love people and put yourself out there for them, you risk being hurt. Look what happened to Jesus.

So this Holy Week I hope to become a little more authentic—as a person, and as a member of the communities in which I live, especially my church community, but also my family (which is called «a little church») and my writing community.

Forgive me.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Southern Wing and a Prayer Tour

Coming to a (Southern) city near you soon… it’s the Southern Wing and a Prayer Tour, starring author/radio show hosts, River Jordan and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson.

Why am I promoting this book/radio show tour?

River and Shellie are my friends. And good Southern authors. And lots of fun.

And… I’m hosting their show IN MY HOME at 6:30 p.m. next Wednesday night, March 31! If you’re in the Memphis area, I hope you can drop in. River and Shellie will be interviewing readers to get their spin on the state of books… the publishing industry in general, and anything else that comes up at a “Southern parlor talk.” (Yes, there will be food. It’s the South, remember?) Email me for directions to my house: sjcushman at g mail dot com.

If you haven’t read their books, drop by your local independent bookseller TODAY and grab a copy of River’s latest novel, “Saints in Limbo,” and Shellie’s hilarious book, “Suck Your Stomach in and Put Some Color On.”

I’m posting from Amavida Coffee in Seaside, Florida, where it’s pouring down rain today. This morning Daphne and I spent a relaxing couple of hours at Coyote Seagrove, where we had breakfast and downloaded photos. After a great day at the beach yesterday…

We enjoyed a lovely evening in Seaside last night, complete with an outdoor concert starring Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, a great band from New Orleans.

I’ve posted lots of pics on Facebook, so I won’t fill up my blog with too many here, but there are a few at the end of this post.

Meanwhile, I wanted to take a minute to share my “beach reads” and “beach book buys” with everyone.

At Sundog Books on Tuesday, I bought three books: “The Women” by T.C. Boyle (inspired by the architecture here in Seaside)….

“Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life,”
by Frances Mayes, intrigued me because of my upcoming trip to Italy (in October) with my husband. And because Frances Mayes is a great writer. Can’t wait to dive into it!

“Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food and Healing in Italy,” by Paula Butturini, called out to me with its title. My husband and I will be celebrating 40 years of marriage on July 13, 2010, and that’s what our Italy trip is all about. If I don’t read this before we go, it might be my airplane read!

But what have I been reading on the beach so far? Elizabeth Spencer’s The Southern Woman has been my favorite. I met Elizabeth, and heard her speak, at the 2009 Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga last April. Her most famous work is “A Light in the Piazza,” which was made into a Broadway play. But I also loved her short piece in this collection, “Cousins,” which also takes place in Italy. Her writing is timeless—good literary fiction. I’m intrigued with her because of our shared roots: We’re both from Mississippi, and she was interviewed by my first cousin, John Griffin Jones, for his anthology, “Mississippi Writers Talking,” back in 1981.

I’ve also been reading/studying Margaret Love-Denman’s book, “Novel Ideas,” which I got when I participated in her writing workshop during the Oxford Conference for the Book a few weeks ago.

I love what Margaret says about “plumbing the depths of your soul” to find your writing. She often quotes Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina), as she does here:

“The best fiction comes from the place where terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough.”

I’ve been struggling with my creative nonfiction writing lately… wondering if I’m willing to publish my memoir once I finish writing and revising it. I’m considering turning to fiction (again) instead, and Margaret’s words here are helpful:

“To reshape real experiences for fiction, you may combine memories, break them up to use bits and pieces throughout the novel, or take one small kernel of memory and spin it into a completely imagined world.”

Don’t’ know if I’m up to the task, but it’s intriguing.

So I’ll close with a few parting shots at Seagrove and Seaside… enjoy!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Red Flags and Red Bar at Grayton Beach on Saint Mary of Egypt Sunday

A few years ago I was at the beach on Saint Mary of Egypt Sunday and I wrote an essay about it, which I wanted to publish on my blog today, but [sigh] I can’t find it. So… I have to start all over with a fresh reflection on the day.

First of all, I really did miss being at St. John for Liturgy this morning, and I was so blessed when Karen Bell sent me this photo of the flowers that all the “Marys of Egypt” brought to commemorate her Feast Day.

That said, whenever I’m at Seagrove Beach, I feel a bit like Dorothy. “There’s no place like the beach. There’s no place like the beach.” Oh wait. Maybe she was talking about home.

So this morning I went for a walk and it was the coldest, windiest, day I’ve ever experienced at the beach… and I’ve even been here in November. I tried to imagine Mary of Egypt trudging through the desert against the cold of the night and the heat of the day, and I found myself praying as I walked, “Holy Mother Mary, Pray to God for me!”

Late morning Daphne and I took Hallie (her daughter) and her friends to The Red Bar at Grayton Beach for brunch,

where we enjoyed good music by Dread Clampitt while we enjoyed brunch.

Afterwards we shopped at the cute shops in Grayton Beach, like the Zoo Gallery, and then we got in the Suburban and before leaving Grayton Beach, Daphne wanted to see the beach there. At the end of a little street by the beach, we saw a Jeep drive onto the beach, so Daphne said, “Look, we can drive on the beach here!” But seeing this warning sign (and btw the red flag means dangerous undertow so we didn’t swim) I said, “No, we can’t do this!’

But alas, she ignored my warning, and here’s the result.

So the girls got out to push…

And finally some others joined in to help…

And we were free at last!

(and okay, Daphne might say it didn’t happen exactly like this… and maybe I cheered her on to drive onto the beach, but that was BEFORE we saw the sign☺

Finally we made our way back to Seaside to Wendy Mignot’s shop, La Vie Est Belle to look for pearls for Hallie’s graduation gift. Wendy makes the best leather and pearl creations.

Back at Seagrove I went for another walk but the wind had picked up even more. We’re hoping for a warmer, calmer day tomorrow. But tonight we’re just thankful to to be here, together, and enjoying playing Hoopla and Partini and a break from school, work and the daily grind.

Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…

When I was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, my family didn’t take many beach trips. I only remember one, actually, when I was five. It was July of 1956. I remember my dad taking my brother and me “way out” into the “deep” water with an old inner tube. In retrospect, the water was probably only up to Dad’s shoulders at that point. I remember the taste of the saltwater when a wave crashed over us.

And I remember getting sunburned on my chest because I didn’t like my swimsuit top tied around my neck and so I just wore it down around my waist half the time. Yeh, I’ve always had a bit of the free spirit in me.

Most of my family’s summer vacations were spent following my dad around to watch him play in golf tournaments. He won some of them, and I loved riding in the golf cart and swimming at the country club pools and all that. But I always missed the beach and couldn’t wait to return.

Like Kris Delmhorst sings in her beautiful song, “Sea Fever,” a musical rendition of the poem by the same name, penned by England’s Poet Laureate, John Mayesfield, I must go down to the sea again!

So, on our honeymoon in June of 1970, we went to the Broadwater Beach in Gulfport, Mississippi. No waves, but it was all we could afford and it was “the sea.” After we were married a few years, we went back, this time to Florida, a few times with friends, and took our kids a few times when they were growing up. And now I wish we had made it an annual event, as some of our friends do with their families. What a great place to build memories.

But it’s never too late, and I’ve been making up for “lost beach time” over the past few years, making 2-3 trips a year either to Gulf Shores, Alabama (closest waves and white sand to Memphis) or to my favorite place, Seagrove, Florida. If you’re new to my blog or if you just like to revisit those trips, here are a few links to posts I wrote while I was “down to the sea.”

Seaside Writers Workshop
(with hubby, Doug & Charmaine McLain and Michael and Jenny Risner) October 2009

Beach trip with Beth, March 2009

Writers Retreat (alone) to Gulf Shores, March 2009

Writers Retreat cont.
March 2009

Writers Retreat cont.

Seagrove Trip with Hubby, (recovering from surgery) Jon, Beth, October 2008

Beach Detour (Mom’s fall) from Seagrove October 2008

Hubby and Beth at Gulf Shores
May 2008

Letting Go at Gulf Shores
November 2007

I started this blog in August of 2007, so I don’t have posts about my first few trips to Seagrove Beach. I fell in love with it in November of 2006, when we took our oldest son, Jon and several of his friends there to celebrate his graduation from flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Here are a couple of photos.

And the following spring I went back down with my best friend, Daphne, and her kids, from Little Rock, in March.

And in April I made yet another trip with my husband and daughter. On those first three trips I stayed at the same townhouse—called “Ramsgate”—right near Eastern Lake. Since then I’ve discovered a few other rentals I really like—some smaller and some larger, depending on the size of the group. And I’m sure there are great places at nearby Rosemary Beach, or on the other side of Seaside at Santa Rosa or Blue Mountain, but I’m pretty stuck on Seagrove. Why?

Partly it’s the “beach scene” itself. You can walk for an hour in either direction and you’ll only see one high rise. Otherwise it’s beautiful beach houses and low-rise condos and even a protected park. There’s also a family atmosphere at Seagrove, unlike the “craziness” you sometimes encounter in the Destin area.

So you can see why I love it so much. I’m out of here at 7 a.m. on Saturday…. Watch for posts from the beach next week. Ah, I can smell the salt water and feel the ocean breeze already….

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

X, Y and Z: Yearning for Christ and Choosing Life

[Scroll down to read about the letters A-W in “A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet.” This is the final post of the series.]

X is for Christ
Y is for Yearning
Z is for Zoe (Life) and Zeal

In icons of Christ, the letters “ICXC” indicate his name, “Jesus Christ.”

Even his hand (or the hand of a priest) forms the word, Jesus Christ, written in Greek letters: IC XC. The index finger is supposed to be held straight to form the "I", middle finger curved to be the first "C", thumb and ring finger crossed to form the "X" and little finger curved to form the final "C".

In Alexander Elchaninov’s Diary of a Russian Priest, he writes to a person who is struggling with the spiritual life:

“I think that two causes are at the basis of your spiritual difficulties: 1. An excessive preoccupation with your own self, and, as a result, an insufficient interest in those around you. 2. An insufficient love of Christ. This love is the basis and root of all spiritual life and strength; we must make it grow up and must train it in ourselves. Begin, for instance, with the overwhelming thought that in all human history there has never been anything more beautiful than Christ…. To gaze attentively at this image, to understand its meaning and to root it deeply in ourselves, to feed on the thoughts of Him, to give our heart to Him—such is the life of the Christian. When this happens, then there is complete peace of heart, that peace of which St. Isaac the Syrian said: ‘Be at peace with yourself, and heaven and earth will be at peace with you.’”

As I was preparing for the sacrament of Confession on Monday evening following one of the Lenten services at St. John Orthodox Church, I read again some of the prayers of preparation for Confession, as well as the comments about the Ten Commandments in the “Self Examination” part of the Orthodox Prayer Book. If this was a twelve-step program, I’d definitely be considered a failure, as I never can make it past step one:

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
(Deut. 6:5)

I don’t love God.
Those words might sound shocking, coming from someone who has been a Christian for almost sixty years. But they are true. Most days I do believe that God loves me, which is a starting point. But I’m still pretty much in love with God’s creation, like a selfish child who only loves what her parents can give her. But I know some people who love God, and I want to love Him the way they do.

So how do we cultivate this love for Christ, this yearning that David wrote about in the Psalms when he said, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord,” (Psalm 84:2) and “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you, O God.” (Psalm 42:1)

It helps me to be around people who love God. Consider how much we are affected by the people we spend time with. Hanging out with people who love to eat and drink makes me want to eat and drink more. Being with people who are avid athletes inspires me to exercise. Spending time with artists and writers spurs my creative efforts. And being with people who love God—and who love to pray—is my salvation. Thankfully, during Great Lent, our parish offers lots of opportunities to come and pray. Tonight we’ll pray the entire Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and read the Life of Saint Mary of Egpyt at St. John. She loves God.

And on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights of Holy Week, we’ll pray Bridegroom Orthros. It helps me to think about the love the bride has for the bridegroom as she anticipates her marriage. That's how the Church is supposed to love God. That's how we are supposed to love God.

My favorite is Tuesday night, when we see the great love for God shown by the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, as we sing the Hymn of Saint Kassiane:

“I have transgressed more than the harlot, O loving Lord, yet never have I offered You my flowing tears. But in silence I fall down before You and with love I kiss Your most pure feet, beseeching You as Master to grant me remission of sins; and I cry to You, O Savior: Deliver me from the filth of my works.”

For those who truly love God, prayer and good works and fasting flow naturally. As St. Theophan says in The Spiritual Life, “Those who are zealous about prayer do not need any rules.” He also says, “Those who are truly free are those who love.” Those who love Christ aren’t bound by rules, but those of us who are still struggling to love Him probably need a pattern to follow. I know I do.

Another thing Theophan says that helps me is to approach spiritual activity “as if you were going to carry it out for the first time.” When I think of this in relation to love, I remember how I felt the first time I was in love. The first kiss. And I also remember how I felt when I went through an early phase of zeal for God and for prayer. The Church encourages us to “remember your baptism” each time we are present for the Sacrament of Baptism and to renew our wedding vows each time we participate in the Sacrament of Matrimony for others. I want to recapture that zeal. In the introduction to Letters to a Beginner, On Giving One’s Life to God, the nun Sophia writes:

“Why can’t we, free women of the 20th century, have paradisal otherworldliness rhythmically beaing in our breasts? Why should the saints of the past be the only ‘Godbearers,’ and we not have God at our side? What hinders the contemporary woman, albeit living in ultra-modern surroundings, from having at hand patristic, ascetic spiritual power, endowed by Christ Himself? What hinders us from truly being with God?”

And so “Z” is for Zeal, which we need in order to cultivate our love for God. But it’s also for “Zoe,” which means “life.”

“I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live.”
Deuteronomy 30:19

When I first thought about this phrase, “choose life,” I naturally thought about the pro-life movement. I read about an organization called Zoe For Life and I thought about my three precious adopted “children” and how thankful I am that their birth mothers chose life.
But I think that choosing life mean more than not choosing abortion. It means choosing God. It means choosing to love—to love our spouses, our children, our parents, our neighbors, our co-workers, and even our enemies. Especially our enemies. And like us, they aren’t always loveable.

Maybe choosing life means choosing to love God. My spiritual father says we have to make this choice every day, every minute.

Like Saint Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland, whose feast we celebrate today. (Here's a nice article about Saint Patrick.)

Saint Patrick's Prayer

Christ, be with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of every one who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Salvation is of the Lord,
Salvation is of the Lord,
Salvation is of the Christ,
May your salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.

Thanks for sharing this part of my Lenten journey by reading “A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet.” I’m finishing it up today, as I’m preparing to go to the beach for a week this Saturday with my best friend and her children. I’ll be home for Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Pascha. I’ll probably be posting from the beach while I’m gone. It won't be the first time I've spent Saint Mary of Egypt Sunday at the beach. I know it's not the desert, but I think she understands.