Friday, September 30, 2011

Disappearing Stories

I haven't blogged about my visits with my mother in a while. She has Alzheimer's and has been confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home since November of 2008. (See "The Purse.") The last time I posted about her was in June:

"I Can't Find My Panties."
and "Cutting Effie's Hair."

and back in January:

"The People in the Box."

I was telling a friend about my recent visit with Mom, and she said she has a hard time going to nursing homes. It's so depressing. I remember when my grandmother was in this same nursing home, and my mother would visit her regularly, but I couldn't bring myself to go very often because of how painful it was for me. I regret that so much now, because I know that each of my visits brought her much joy--even if she didn't recognize me or remember that I was there. Because "Emotions Outlast the Memories."

The truth is that the visits get harder because Mom's stories are disappearing. She has lost all the context of her 83 years of living. I can no longer share photos of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren because she has no idea who they are. She has no emotional response to the photographs and just asks me over and over "who is that?" and then says, "I don't remember them." So I've quit showing her photographs. There are lots of pictures of our family on the bulletin board on the wall in her room, and in frames around the room, but I just don't take new ones when I visit now.

We typically sit outside on the patio, where she loves to watch the hummingbirds (none visited on Wednesday) and flowers, and the other people coming and going through the doors to the lobby. But sometimes, when it's either too hot or too cold on the patio, we sit in the front lobby, where we can see the tall pine trees on the wooded park that separates the nursing home from a baseball park.

"Mom, do you remember all the summers we spent at those baseball fields? Mike (my brother) played Little League, and Dad was a coach?"

"Who is Mike?"

"My brother, your son. He died about three years ago. But we spent so many summers watching him play baseball."

"I didn't see him much."

And so I change the subject:

"I brought your favorite snack, Mom. Peanut M & M's and coffee."

Mom enjoyed the entire pack of M & M's, but at one point the chocolate and nuts were getting stuck in her teeth, and the coffee was gone, so I got a cup of water and offered it to her.

"What's that?" she asked as she took the cup from me.

"It's water, Mom."

"What am I supposed to do with it?"

"Drink some to help wash the peanuts and chocolate out of your teeth."

"Peanuts and chocolate? Oh, I'd love some, but I've got something stuck in my pockets."

"You mean your teeth, Mom. It's the M & M's. Here, drink some water."

A few sips of water and she's staring at the trees again. "It's amazing how many people are in there."

"You mean how many trees?"

"They're so tall!"

(The pines are probably 75-100 feet tall.)

"Yep. I remember when they weren't so tall, when I was a little girl and we came over here to watch Mike play baseball."

"Who is Mike?"

And so I try for one more story. Mom is wearing a necklace that has souvenir coins from all the trips my dad earned selling life insurance back in the 50s and 60s. Nassau. Hilton Head. New York. Mom went with him to all these exotic-sounding places and they always brought me back souvenirs. When I found this necklace on which Mom had collected the commemorative coins from the trip, I thought it would help her remember.

"Look, Mom. These coins remind you of all those wonderful trips Dad won selling life insurance. Remember going with him to Nassau? It was so beautiful. And so many other wonderful places."

"No, I don't think I got to go with him."

"Sure, you did, Mom. I've got lots of photographs of you and Dad on those trips. Would you like me to bring some on my next visit?"

"Who are you going to visit?"

"You, Mom. You know I drive down from Memphis to visit you a couple of times a month. Like today."

"You drive by yourself? Are you sure that's safe?"

"I'm careful, Mom. In fact, I need to leave now. I'll see you again in a couple of weeks. Want me to bring some more M & M's?"

"What are M & M's?"

And so it goes....

If you're new to my blog and would like to "catch up" on the Effie stories, here are a few links to older posts:

Links to other posts about Mom:

Effie at Eighty-One
February 2009
Bingo and Birthdays Lost December 2008
If Mama Ain’t Happy November 2008
HER Mother’s Keeper October 2008
My Mother’s Keeper October 2008
Unhappy Chairs September 2008
The Good Granddaughter August 2008
The Good Daughter Part II July 2008
The Good Daughter Part I June 2008
The Glasses (within the post, “The Treasure Hunt”) April 2008
She Can’t Possibly Be Eighty February 2008
Piece of Mind November 2007

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Mississippi Neighbors

What a surprise to meet Bruce Thomas at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop this past weekend. Bruce flew in from Kansas for the workshop, but we discovered that we GREW UP ON THE SAME STREET in Jackson, Mississippi! He lived across the street from my best friend, but he was 10 years younger than me, so we didn't really hang out. But it's fun to imagine that we probably rode our bikes behind the same bug machine. Bruce is a great guy and it was fun getting to know him this weekend.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Where's the Fire? (at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop)

I was the first one to get downstairs, wearing my silk nightgown and robe, and clutching my MacBook Pro to my heart. The security guard ushered me outside. The only other people out there were a few hotel employees, looking fresh in their uniforms, like nurses on the night shift.

Gradually a few sleepy-eyed folks joined me. Bald-headed Bob arrived bare-footed in shorts and a tee shirt, very little contrast between his night and day look. John, Neil and Debbie were fully dressed, carrying backpacks, computers and purses. Kory and Connie showed up in casual attire, but clearly not in their jammies. Suddenly I felt naked.

“I didn’t want my new friends to see me like this.” Bare-faced with bed-hair, NancyKay pouted as she joined the motley crew outside the hotel. NancyKay is a Mississippi girl like me, and we were raised not to go anywhere without our makeup on. It was 6 a.m., and we had all been jolted from our sleep by the fire alarm.

“I tried putting the pillow over my head,” Kory confessed, “but I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

“Who wants to go across the street for breakfast?” NancyKay had regained her spunk. “We might as well, we could be stuck out here for a while.”

I hadn’t considered that and wished, again, that I had gotten dressed.

“I sat at a coffee shop for two hours during a fire alarm once,” Debbie said.

Other hotel guests that weren’t part of our group eventually joined us outside. No one else was in nighties. I couldn’t have felt more unprofessional. There I sat, Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop on the campus of the University of Memphis, vulnerable as Blondie in hair curlers. All hope for respect gone. Who would take me seriously now?

The fire truck arrived and several firemen filed inside the hotel. No one was running. There was no sense of urgency on any faces.

But I take fire alarms seriously. When the obnoxious siren went off in my room on the fourth floor of the Fogelman Center, I thought my ears would burst. Disoriented and sleep-deprived (I had gotten in bed around 2 a.m.) I opened the curtains on my suite and looked out into the atrium. It was barely light outside. I didn’t see fire. I didn’t smell smoke. But my heart was pounding.

My favorite jewelry was in a drawer, but I only took time to throw on a robe and grab my cell phone, purse and computer. Who would notice if I died with my pearls on? As I stepped into the hall, numerous people were peeking out of their doors and a security guard was giving instructions. “Take the stairs, please. Everyone out. Now!”

Like a kindergarten teacher, I did a mental role call and noticed that Bruce, Terence and Porter hadn’t joined us. These are smart men. What did they know that the rest of us didn’t? Bruce is a meteorologist, Terence is a lawyer, and Porter is a multi-media guru. Were they privy to inside information that allowed them to remain upstairs in their rooms?

I envied the other workshoppers who were undoubtedly asleep at the DoubleTree or in their Memphis homes.

After about twenty minutes the firemen came back out and drove away. The security guard invited us inside. I don’t know if anyone else went to breakfast, but I was hoping to catch another hour or two of sleep before the workshop started at 9 a.m.

Back in my bed on the fourth floor, my body began to register the stress and exhaustion, on top of the gin and tonics and wine from the social event the previous evening. Chills and nausea gripped me and I found myself shaking all over in the bed. Unbearable cramps attacked both legs and feet. This went on for an hour or so. Finally I got up, took a shower, washed my hair and headed to the meeting room.

I had to sit down to keep from passing out. A few folks were already in the room and offered to help. I was supposed to introduce the day’s workshop leader (Bob Cowser) and coordinate the schedule for the pitch fest with the literary agent (John Mason.)

“We’ve got this,” John said.

I barely made it back to my room before the nausea overtook me. Fortunately I had some medicine with me, which I took and crawled back in bed. I slept from 9-11 a.m. When I woke, the symptoms were mostly gone, so I joined the workshop in progress. The world had not stopped turning in my absence.

Those were the more vivid 5 hours of the weekend (6-11 a.m. on Saturday) for me. The other 48 hours came off fairly smoothly, I think. Manuscripts were critiqued. Craft talks and readings were given. Books were pitched. Questions were asked and answered at panels. Hopefully a good time was had by all at the faculty readings at Burke’s Books and later outside on the patio at Celtic Crossing Friday night, and at the dinner catered by Central Barbeque on Saturday night. I know that new friendships were forged and emerging writers went home with hearts full of hope for their projects to be improved and one day, published. But this morning as I sat down to write a post about the workshop, those five hours stood out in my mind. Like eager students waving their hands and jumping out of their seats in class, they begged to be recognized. And after all, aren’t experiences like that the stuff of creative nonfiction?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Readings, Wine and Music: Friday Night in Memphis!

Heading into an exciting weekend, with the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop finally becoming a reality. Check out my latest post on the CNF site:

"Faculty Readings at Burke's Books."

I'm excited that we're going to have FALL WEATHER for our first social event, which will include creative nonfiction and poetry readings, wine, and musical entertainment: Kory (poet/writer)and Kelsy (Kory's daughter) Wells from Murphreesboro, Tennessee! The event at Burke's is free and open to the public.

Workshop faculty and participants will enjoy dinner on the patio at Celtic Crossing following the readings at Burke's. Neil White will speak during dinner, on "The Perils and Joys of Publishing a Memoir."

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rilke on Art, Loving Another, and the Artist's Epitome

About four years ago I did a post called, "The Knot in the Rosary at Which His Life Says a Prayer." I shared some writing from the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

["Rilke," a painting by David Pymm]

Today loneliness and pain have again camped out in my heart, and I find myself writing to address those feelings. But the writing is too personal to share yet. Or maybe ever. Today I am doing art. It is, as Rilke says, the "proof to myself of my genuineness," of my struggle to live an authentic life. More of Rilke's words:

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us. Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.

Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity.... Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it, that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life says a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside....

I hope that my work today truly is a necessary, irrepressible, definitive utterance, and proof of my unity and genuineness. I'm not sure I've gone through this experience "all the way to the end," but I have been in danger. Perhaps I'm still there. And so I write.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mary Allison Remembered

Thirteen years ago today I lost my precious 20-year-old Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway. She was on her way from our house here in Memphis to Indianola, Mississippi, where she was going to celebrate her mother and her grandmother's birthdays. (This photo shows me with Mary Allison at her high school graduation in 1996. We both graduated from Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi.)

Yesterday I made the koliva for the memorial prayers which will be prayed today at St. John Orthodox church. While the wheat was boiling in the church kitchen, I sat in the nave and prayed. At one point I thought, "Mary would love all the new iconography that's been done since she was here. I wish she could see it." Then it hit me: She doesn't need the images any more. She can see God and His saints face to face.

And so I imagined her talking with Mary of Egypt, the patron saint we share. And with Sophia and her daughters, Faith, Hope and Love. Yesterday was Sophia's Feast Day, and my Goddaughter, Sophie's Name Day.

Since September 14 was the Feast Day for the Exaltation of the Cross, there was still a small cross in the middle of the nave, with a relic of the true cross in a little box attached to it. As I did prostrations before it yesterday afternoon, I chanted quietly, "Before Thy cross we bow down in worship... and Thy blessed resurrection we glorify."

Being reminded of Mary's death every year on September 18 can be hard. I'm sure it's hardest for her mother, who is celebrating her 60th birthday today. But I'm thankful that we have the Feast of the Cross just 4 days earlier, to remind us of Christ's victory over death.

You can read my previous posts about Mary Allison here:

"Twelve Years Ago Today."

"Glory to God for All Things." (which has an article I did for the church newsletter, and photos from the funeral)

"Memory Eternal: September 18, 1998."

I love you and miss you, Mary.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Kelly Corrigan, on HAPPINESS

I just ran across this You Tube video of author Kelly Corringan speaking to the eighth grade class at Hamlin School.

Kelly's book, The Middle Place, captured my heart a few years ago. I haven't read her latest work, Lift, yet, but it's on my list.

As I watched Kelly address these eighth grade girls, I thought, "I wish someone had spoken to me that way when I was their age."

The Kelly Corrigan three-part formula for happiness:

1. Make yourself useful
2. ... doing something hard
3. ... with good people.

I love her words about choosing good people to be with, and how hard it is to "find your people."

She also talks about FLOW... how creative, productive people always have a project going that's challenging. And how all of this relates to happiness.

Good stuff.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Devils, Imps, Angels, Kith and Kin

I wish I had written that title.

I wish I could write poetry like Corey Mesler.

I wish I could play Scrabble like Corey Mesler.

Yes, this is a Corey Mesler love fest.

Read more over at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop site:

"Corey Mesler on devils, imps, angels, kith and kin."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where Were You?

There are a plethora of television specials, essays, blog posts, Facebook notes, songs and poems about September 11. People on Facebook keep asking, like Alan Jackson's song, "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?"

Art helps us make sense of our lives. That's why many of us write, paint, sing, dance, act, design things, build things. One of the better blog posts I read this week is by Ken Hertz, an airplane pilot:

"September 11: Why I Write."
Here's an excerpt:

"But the act of writing itself seemed invested with new urgency. I questioned my prior writing goals: Would it even be okay to write about seemingly trivial subjects? Did the very fact of 9/11—starkly visible to me in the form of a still-smoldering hole in the city as I flew down the Hudson—now mean that every writing effort must be directed toward producing a work of larger importance, something with the gravitas to match the era in which we now found ourselves living?"

And here's a poem by Edwin Romond:

"Picking My Son Up After His First Day a Preschool. September 11, 2001."

Where was I? I was visiting Holy Dormition (Orthodox) Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. For one week I had no access to television or radio news. I saw none of the images the rest of the world watched perpetually during that week. Here's how I received the news:

Mother Gabriella (the abbess, in the middle in this photo) and I were walking outside after breakfast. We had been up early for the morning worship service that Tuesday, which wasn't anything unusual for the nuns and priests at the monastery. They get up early every morning to pray. It's usually quiet on the monastery grounds, but on this morning workmen were busy finishing up the new guest house, and Mother Gabriella was taking me over to see the progress when we noticed the workmen leaning against a truck, listening to the radio. As we approached, one of them said, "The World Trade Centers in New York City have just been hit by airplanes."

My immediate response was to look at Mother's face, to see how she would respond. The news was too big for me to bear alone. I needed her calm strength, and it was there immediately. She didn't cry. She didn't run back to the refectory screaming the news to the other nuns. She held my hand, and we walked calmly back to tell Father Roman the news. He had a television in his house on the monastery grounds, and over the next few days he would watch some of the coverage and give the nuns and visitors updates during meals.

Of course I called my husband, who was at a medical meeting in Vancouver. And then my daughter, who had just started her freshman year at the University of Tennessee. She was away from home for the first time and I wanted to hold her. One of her brothers was also at UT, so at least they were together. Our oldest son was living on an island in the Caribbean. A friend of his on the island lost his mother in the fall of the World Trade Centers. The next week Jon joined the Army. Ten years later he's an officer and a pilot, having done two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanastan.

Three days after September 11, on September 14, 2001, we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Archbishop Nathaniel of Detroit and
The Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America
served the liturgy and gave a wonderful homily. After breakfast we all went outside to ring the large bells. Bishop Nathaniel said we were ringing them to celebrate Christ's victory over death, even the deaths of September 11. I remember when it was my turn to pull the rope and cause the loud peal of the bells, something inside my heart lifted. As the author of this article on the use of bells in Orthodox worship says:

"Having come to love the ringing of church bells, the Russian Orthodox people have united to it all their festive and sorrowful events. For this reason Orthodox church bell ringing not only signals the start of church services, but serves as an expression of joy, sorrow and solemnity."

At the end of my week-long pilgrimage at the monastery, I flew home to Memphis, on Sunday, September 16. I saw my first images of the planes hitting the buildings on the television screens all throughout the Detroit airport. I sat and wept loudly as I watched in a bar at the airport. Someone sitting near me said, "Each time we see these images it's like seeing them for the first time, isn't it?" He had no idea it WAS the first time I had seen them.

When I got home and held my husband in my arms, my grief exploded. And my thankfulness that our family was safe.

A dear friend who lived and worked in New York City had seen people jumping from the windows of the burning buildings. Another had walked for hours to get home from work since the subways weren't working. Another who worked in one of the buildings was going in to work later than usual that day, and so his life was spared. They only spoke about that day in muted tones, and not for many months after it passed.

So, that's my 9/11 story. What's yours?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Pitch, Query and Synopsis

If you're interested in learning about pitching your writing to a literary agent at a writing workshop or conference, please visit my post over at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop site:

"Pitch, Query and Synopsis."

If not, just move along. There's nothing to see here today.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and Tomato Soup

Finally, we've got cool, crisp weather here in Memphis after so many months of steamy hot days. When I got hungry for lunch, the first thing I thought of was grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, which they served in the Tri Delt house at Ole Miss when I was there in 1969-70. I'm thinking it was every Thursday, but I don't remember for sure. Maybe even Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was my favorite food at the house, and I remember being amazed at HOW MANY grilled cheese sandwiches those SKINNY girls could eat!

So today I fixed myself a memory and enjoyed it with the windows open so I could breathe in the early fall air. (Yes, I know, the heat will probably come back, but hey, a girl can dream.)

When I posted this on Facebook, an old friend (Mike Mayberry from high school days in Jackson, Mississippi) said:

"Funny how certain weather conditions move us to certain foods! Think there's an essay there?"

I replied that the only "food essay" I had ever written was about eating disorders, and then my friend, David Lyons, hit the "like" button and then said, "because I'm somewhat twisted."

The whole conversation got me stirred up... I'm reading Caroline Knapp's memoir, Appetites: Why Women Want, and it's not just about food. It's about why women often suppress their desires and then get caught in traps with substitutes:

"Obsessive relationships with men; compulsive shopping and debt; life-defining preoccupation with appearances; 'isms' of all kinds--all of those are about emptiness, about misdirected attempts to fill internal voids, and all of them tend to spring from the same dark pool of feeling: a suspicion among many women that hungers themselves are somehow invalid or wrong....Eat too much, want too much, act too sexual, or too ambitious or too hungry, and the invoice will arrive, often delivered with an angry hiss of self-recrimination: You're a pig, a sloth, you suck."

(Knapp was a recovering anorexic and alcoholic. Her memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, is powerful. Knapp died in 2002, of cancer.)

Maybe I'll get that essay out and dust it off and send it back out for publication. It was only rejected twice, I think. I didn't cast a very wide net. It's not really for a very wide audience.

But my friend, David Lyons would like it.