Monday, October 31, 2011

Spooky Sand Castles and Witches Old and New

Just got back from a walk on the beach, hoping to find some creative sand castles, but alas, none in sight on this picture-perfect day. So I surfed the web and found this one, perfect for Halloween. Can you imagine how long it took to build this?

I hope to catch all the cute goblins trick-or-treating at the shops in Seaside later this afternoon... gotta drive to Destin to buy ink cartridges for my printer. (And I thought I was organized for this trip.)

For some good ideas on spooky books to read, check out Jennie/Jenna Bentley's post over at "A Good Blog is Hard to Find":

"Happy Halloween!"

My parting shots today are the two witches I've been... in my 3rd grade school play (1959) in Jackson, Mississippi ...

and as "Elphaba" (from Wicked) at the Pulpwood Queens' Girlfriend weekend in Jefferson, Texas, in 2010.

Have a fun day and be safe!

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Dying of the Brightness

The other day a friend and I visited over coffee and talked about our lives. We both turned 60 this year, and we agreed that the first fifty years went by fairly slowly, but the last decade seemed to pass quickly. We talked about our goals, our desires for the final third (if God wills) of our lives, and shared a bit of our anxiety about how fast these days/years might progress. It was a sobering conversation.

And then the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine arrived in my mailbox and I devoured Kevin Nance's profile of Joan Didion, "The Light at Dusk."

Joan's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005) was about the death of her husband, the writer John Dunne. Six years later she's publishing another memoir, Blue Nights, about the death of her adopted daughter, Quintana. (Blue Nights will be released on November 1.... I've pre-ordered it to be downloaded on my Kindle next Tuesday.) That's Quintana, with her parents.

I've always been attracted to dark writing, especially brilliant, dark writing, like Didion's. She doesn't write for therapy, although she says that writing can be therapeutic. She speaks of writing about her daughter's death and other difficult things:

"I've always had the sense that if there was ever any doubt about whether I should deal with something, then I have to deal with it.... The image that always come to my mind is that if you keep your eye on the rattlesnake,t he rattlesnake can't get you."

Nance writes about Didion's style and tone:

"Didion's great stylistic achievement is a seeming emotional detachment that can't quite suppress the passion lying just beneath.... The tone of the writing does not call attention to itself, and yet it's distinctively hers. And that is what I think is the great power of her writing."

The title of this memoir, Blue Lights, comes from the quality of the light at dusk, which she misses since leaving her native California for New York City. She explains in the prologue of the new memoir how that twilight is replaced by "the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors."

From the prologue:

"This book is called 'Blue Nights' because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning."

That captures how I'm feeling as I enter the seventh decade of life. So, why am I drawn to the blue night, to all this darkness and talk of illness and death? I'm not sure, but somehow I find comfort in it. Check back in with me after I read and review the book... hopefully in a few weeks.

I'm off to Seagrove Beach, Florida, tomorrow for another month of writing by the sea. Last year I wrote ten chapters, and this year I hope to finish this novel. But more than that, I hope to make peace with the blue nights.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Demons’ Playthings: Struggling Against Anomie

It’s been about 8 months since I’ve written about acedia, but that’s not because I haven’t been struggling. Some version of depression, anxiety, and other dark demons visit me often, but I’ve managed to stay busy enough to ignore them a good bit until recently.

If you’re new to my blog, or if you aren’t familiar with acedia, you might want to read some of these posts from the past two years to catch up:

“Spiritual Struggles: A Whirlpool of Thoughts”

“They Used to Call it Poetry: Acedia & Me, continued”

“Why Does Sobriety Have to Come With Feelings?”

“The Ancient Demon of Acedia in Modern Dress: The Journey Begins”

“Raising the Bar: Artificial Loneliness and Man-Induced Boredom”

This morning I re-visited Kathleen Norris’ book, Acedia & Me, and read Chapter XIII, “Acedia’s Decline.” I read slowly, and also read some Scriptures, prayed, and tried to breathe in some of the wisdom I discovered. Many of Norris’ words hit home with me:

“Zeal is the best weapon in the psyche’s toolbox for contending with acedia.”

“In the Christian spiritual tradition, as in many other faiths, two requisite qualities of that other-directed love are generosity and humility.”

“Our job is not to deny them (anger, jealousy greed, gluttony, lust, pride, acedia) but to make our way through to the virtue on the other side…. Acedia virtue is a caring expressed in thoughtful and timely acts that enhance our relationship with others.”

As wholesome and good as these words are, they were not new to me. Many spiritual writings contain similar ideas. It was when Norris wrote about the difference in depression and acedia that her words began to hit home with me:

“I find that depression has an identifiable and external cause that acedia lacks. I can look at my life and see where the trouble is coming from. But acedia arises out of nowhere, as it were, emerging from my inner depths without warning, and without any reason that I can determine. Acedia is more subtle, and when it wells up in me, only the venerable practice of spiritual discernment I of much use…. A contemporary psychologist, Solomon Schimmel, comments that ‘we may not at first recognize the connection between a deadly vice and its indirect effects, but a deeper probing will often reveal it. Anomie, for example, the despair of finding meaning and purpose in life, is traceable in part to the materialism of greed, the spiritual apathy of sloth, and the narcissism of pride.”

Wow. I didn’t want to read that. I didn’t want to be reminded, again, that anomie—despair—often comes from pride. Because that means that my will must be involved, and that repentance and more struggle will be part of all this.

Norris quotes both Cassian and Merton on the difference between acedia and sadness, saying that “acedia is ‘the sadness, the disgust with life, which comes from a much deeper source-our inability to get along with ourselves, our disunion with God…. Disgust with life often has to do with the life one has chosen, and when the bad thought of acedia attacks one’s very identity, it causes great pain…. the numbing of the soul, and an increased inability to conceive of every being happy again, let alone stable….”

She nails how I’ve been feeling for most of my life, but especially the past few years, as I’ve struggled to find what she calls my “real self,” through my writing. She continues:

“Writers often doubt their vocation and find themselves in droughts that, unlike the normal rhythm of arid seasons and more productive ones, can cause unnatural silences.”

Many writers despair and give into acedia, and I can see that I do that from time to time, especially when I think “life is too hard.” Why? Norris says, “Acedia will always take the path of least resistance and attempt to go around, rather than through, the demands that life make of us.”

Which is why we drink.

Or do other things to avoid the pain.

Is there any good news in this chapter?

Yes. Norris offers a traditional practice of observing one’s thoughts and letting them go, without judging them, a spiritual practice which she says is akin to cognitive therapy. She also encourages us to stop over-thinking everything, and to exercise more, which keeps serotonin at better levels. The goal of these practices, she says, is to “break the vicious cycle of persistent thoughts.” This doesn’t mean we won’t struggle—struggle is good, so log as we envision something better and don’t succumb to acedia. If we don’t struggle, as she notes Evagrius saying, “we become the playthings of our demons, no longer able to distinguish between what will enhance our lives and what will destroy us.”

And so I press on, remembering these final words from Evagrius:

“Endurance cures listlessness, and so does everything done with much care and fear of God…. Set a measure for yourself in everything that you do, and don’t turn from it until you’ve reached that goal.”

On a recent visit with one of my mentors, Jere Hoar (in Oxford, Mississippi) he reminded me of his words to me from many months ago:

“Finish your book and love your husband. Everything else is superfluous or distracting.”

I respect Jere and his words very much, but I will add loving my children and seeking God to those directives. May God have mercy.

Friday, October 21, 2011

It's Personal

I was visiting with a writing friend recently who is writing memoir. She let her boyfriend read an excerpt of her work, and his response was, "it's kind of... personal, isn't it?"

That's what (personal) memoir is. Not all memoir is personal. Sometimes an author writes memoir about someone else's life, or an event in someone else's life. But when the author is writing about her own life, it's personal.

So is the personal essay.

No one says this better than Jennifer Bowen Hicks, in her guest post over at Brevity:

"Transparency of Thought in the Essay."

A brief excerpt:

"When a writer voices the agitations of her will through words, I feel my own blood moving inside my veins, transfused and transformed by the essay’s greatest potential gift: full access to another human’s thinking, feeling, core—that place where our truest feelings and agitations live. In writing, is there other point?"

It's not just that we like confessional writing, although that can be a part of it. It's that we crave intimacy with other human beings, and what could be more intimate than knowing their thoughts, their feelings, their soul?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: On the road again...

In my dream car (1986 Mercedes 560 SL) .... I wish. (A friend Photoshopped me in here a few years ago when I was following this car on eBay.)

What's your dream car?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Chiaroscuro: A Picture of Paradox

When Wendy Reed and Jennifer Horne were editing my essay for inclusion in the upcoming anthology, Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, I found them very easy to work with. We went back and forth a few times about certain aspects of the essay, but for the most part, I felt their suggestions made my writing better. And then Wendy recommended a new title. (Titles are a big deal with me. My first published essay, four years ago, was all about naming things. And one of my posts over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, "Call for Names," is all about the importance of naming characters in a book.)

My original title for the essay was, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns.” It was the working title for the memoir I was writing at the time, and this essay was born from a series of excerpts from several chapters of the memoir. I had been living with the title for a couple of years, so it was a bit jarring to me to consider a different one. Especially since I had (embarrassingly) not heard of the first word in the title:

“Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow.”


It’s a term used in art
, Wendy said.

I was so tempted to say, oh yes, of course, I know what that is. What a great idea. But I admitted my ignorance and proceeded to do a little research to learn what it meant. Here are some of the results I found:

“Chiaroscuro (English pronunciation: /kiˌɑːrəˈskjʊəroʊ/, Italian: [kjarosˈkuːro] "light-dark") in art is characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition.”

And its use in music, especially opera:

“Classical voice instructors describe the optimal balance of clearness and darkness in the singing voice tone as chiaroscuro: a combination of brightness and "ping" (brilliance and resonance) with warmth and depth i.e. the 'dark' colours (natural or manufactured) of the individual timbre.” Both of these quotes are from Wikipedia.

“Chiaroscuro is a method for applying value to a two-dimensional piece of artwork to create the illusion of a three-dimensional solid form. This way of working was devised during the Italian Renaissance and was used by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. In this system, if light is coming in from one predetermined direction, then light and shadow will conform to a set of rules.” (from Studio Chalkboard)

And this woman’s blog post from May,“Chiaroscuro” says:

“Chiaroscuro paints a picture of paradox, denoting the division between light and shadow.“

Clearness and darkness. A picture of paradox. Brightness and ping. Light and shadow.

I was beginning to like this word, but I kept fumbling over its pronunciation. And then I found this link that actually pronounces the word for you: “Chiaroscuro.” I kept playing it over and over and repeating the word the way my husband and I did when we were trying to learn a few Italian phrases before our trip to Italy last year. After a while, it began to feel good on my lips.

And so when my story about Jesus freaks, belly dancers and nuns comes out in Circling Faith next spring, I hope I won’t trip over the title if I get the opportunity to do any book signings or readings. But if I do, it won’t be because I didn’t try very hard to sound like the sophisticated artist that Wendy and Jennifer think I am.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Circling Faith

Five years ago today I met several women who would change my life, although I had no idea what that change might look like at the time. On October 14 at the Southern Festival of Books (when the Festival still rotated between Nashville and Memphis—it was downtown at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis that year) I met Beth Ann Fennelly, Cassandra King Conroy, Lee Smith, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed. Each of these amazing women—poets, writers and editors—opened the windows of my soul to a world I had always longed for. It was the world of strong women of passion.

Those aren’t my words. They come from the front inside flap of the book Jennifer and Wendy were presenting at the Festival in 2006, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. I went to a panel discussion with Jennifer, Wendy and several of the authors included in the anthology. Cassandra King Conroy was on that panel. Later she and I had a discussion about her book, The Sunday Wife. Afterwards, she wrote in my autographed copy of the book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is.”

Beth Ann and I also met and visited during the weekend, and she autographed her book of poetry, On Tender Hooks. Who knew that she would soon become one of my teachers and mentors through the various workshops I would take in Oxford over the next five years. Today I am blessed to call her friend, and to be included between the covers of the upcoming anthology (also edited by Wendy and Jennifer and published by the University of Alabama Press) Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality.

Circling Faith
is due out in the spring of 2012. Although I’ve seen the list of amazing women whose essays will be published inside the book with mine (including Mary Karr and Alice Walker!) it didn’t seem real to me until yesterday, when Wendy posted the cover art for the book on Facebook.

Birmingham artist Bethanne Hill also did the cover for All Out of Faith, and she’s outdone herself again with this beautiful and symbolic work. You can watch a video about Bethanne’s work here.

Bethanne says that her “paintings are (her) stories, embellished in that great, Southern tradition.”

The inside flap on the Wendy and Jennifer’s first anthology All Out of Faith, says, “The South is often considered patriarchal, but as these writers show, southern culture has always reserved a special place for strong women of passion.” Circling Faith will also be full of stories told in that “great Southern tradition” by “strong women of passion.” Follow my blog for release dates this spring, or friend me, Wendy or Jennifer on Facebook. Until then, enjoy Bethanne’s wonderful artwork, which would make fabulous Christmas gifts. I love the children’s book she illustrated, Why the Oyster Has the Pearl, by Johnette Downing, and I just ordered another book she illustrated, Two of ‘Em in There: A Southern Writer’s Journey To and Through the First Year of Twin Motherhood by Finley Bullard Evans for a friend who is expecting twins in January.

If you’re a strong woman of passion, or know someone who is, order All Out of Faith. Jennifer wrote in the cover of my copy five years ago: To Susan—“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” (Tagore)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Canon, We Do NOT Have Blast Off

It looks pretty cool, right? That's because it's shiny and new and black and sleek. So, what's the problem? The problem is that after spending 3 hours (6 combined hours, counting my husband and I both working at it for 3 hours) trying to connect our new Canon printer to our computer network, we finally got it connected around midnight last night... but only to my husband's PC. My Mac is still left out. I'm too tired to talk to the people on the help line today. Maybe tomorrow.

Other strangeness: Office Max's Computer Support people (that we paid $50 for, in order to talk with people closer than India) can't work with anyone whose computer is on a domain (like my husband's, which is encrypted by the VA) so they couldn't help him, hence we did it all by ourselves. AND... they can't work with Macs at all. Not sure what we got for our fifty bucks... except for a two-year maintenance plan. We'll see how that works out.

Oh and did I mention that ever since we started working on the set up (around 9 p.m. last night) my computer kicks me off the internet about every ten minutes, requiring me to follow about 8 steps (including re-entering the wireless key) to get back online? Ooops. I better hurry and post this before it gives me the boot again. Sorry about the rant... guess this wasn't very wordless after all.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Ring Bear

When we arrived for Scott Morris and Katie Linde’s wedding Saturday afternoon at Taylor Methodist Church in Taylor, Mississippi—seven miles south of Oxford—we knew this was not going to be your average wedding. (My companions for the wedding were my husband, Bill, and our friend, Jere Hoar. We were meeting up with my writing buddy, Doug McLain.) First of all, the bride is an artist and model in New York City, and the groom is a published author of literary fiction. Their sisters and several of the groomsmen are accomplished actors. Katie’s family is from Nashville while Scott’s is from Florida. But Katie fell in love with Oxford and its surroundings when Scott proposed marriage to her at the historic College Hill Church during her first visit in June. Scott was leading the manuscript critique sessions at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop (and no, I didn’t make that name up—William Faulkner did) and brought Katie with him to meet his Mississippi friends. And we all fell in love with Katie and her sweet spirit.

Katie was a vision of romance running down the street in her elegant white gown and flip-flops thirty minutes before the wedding. She was catching up with her bridesmaids for some photos in front of the reception site—Taylor Grocery and (catfish) Restaurant. Taylor Grocery opened as a dry goods store in 1889, and operated as such for almost a hundred years. In 1977 it became a catfish restaurant and continues to serve up some of the best fried catfish filets, hushpuppies and local music every weekend. My favorite shot of Katie and her maids is just behind the gas pump out front that reads, “EAT or we both starve!”

Katie’s daughter Lindie served as both Flower Girl and Maid of Honor. In her green tulle dress with a crown of flowers and flowing ribbons, she reminded me of a forest nymph from a Shakespeare play. The other bridesmaids dressed in purple bubble dresses. All this color contrasted beautifully with the white clapboard church and its verdant lawn.

And then there was the music. Katie’s father is the late Dennis Linde, Nashville songwriter best known for writing the 1972 Elvis Presley hit, “Burning Love.” A tape of Linde singing another of his hits, "Peaceful," was played during the processional, and then "Burning Love" was played as the recessional for the wedding ceremony, and it was hard not to start dancing in the aisles. There was even a copy of Linde’s original hand-written draft of the lyrics included in the wedding program, which was adorned with Katie's original artwork and Scott's lyric prose.

But the pièce de ré·sis·tance was the little boy playing in the grass in front of the church before the wedding in a fluffy white bear suit. (Photo by Doug McLain.) I was sure it was his new Halloween costume and he had begged his mom to let him wear it to the wedding, although it was 80 degrees outside. I secretly applauded that mother and looked around, wondering which of the several dozen beautifully dressed women she might be. Eventually I forgot all about the little boy, until
the wedding ceremony began. And there he was—walking down the aisle in that bear costume, carrying the wedding rings on a white satin pillow. Taking his place beside the groom, he sucked his fingers shyly as he faced his adoring audience.

I asked someone nearby why he was dressed that way and they said that when he was asked to be the “ring bearer” for the wedding, he thought they said, “ring bear,” and he was thrilled, so long as he could wear a bear suit.

And so the last member of the wedding party listed in the program is Micah Polaha, “Ring Bear.” It's not surprising that Micah’s parents—Julianne and Kristoffer Polaha, sister and brother-in-law of the groom—are both actors. The Ring Bear’s future looks bright.

Passing Shot: the wedding cake!

Congratulations and Many Years to Katie and Scott!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Sewing Needle in Foot

This x-ray is NOT actually my mother's foot. But Saturday I got a call from the nursing home because the 3rd toe on her left foot was blue and swollen. They think she must have stumped it while padding around in her wheelchair. So they had an x-ray done and discovered a sewing needle near her metatarsal bone! It appears to have been in there for a long time, and she has never mentioned it hurting. It still doesn't hurt. How weird is that? Because of her Alzheimer's, she has no memory of when/how it happened. The doctor doesn't recommend surgery to remove it since she's not in any pain. I Googled "sewing needle in toe" and found quite a few photos and stories, so I guess this isn't so weird after all. Life with Effie goes on:-)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Haste Makes Waste

It's my turn over at the Southern Authors' blog, "A Good Blog is Hard to Find." Please hop over and read my post:


Comments are always welcome!