Our Mother Mary

DormitionToday is the Feast of the Dormition (the “falling asleep”) of the Mother of God. It is the analogue in the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Virgin in Roman Catholicism, and on balance, the similarities between the two commemorations are greater than their differences: The Dormition is one of the twelve Great Feasts in the Orthodox year. The Assumption is a holy day of obligation and, I am told, is superseded only by Easter in its importance for Catholics.

The heart of the feast remains the same for both: the end of Mary’s earthly life of faithfulness, the culmination of her own original yes in her agreement to bear the Son of God in the reception of her sanctified body into heaven. It is believed (contrary to some popular misunderstanding) by both Orthodox and Roman Catholics that Mary experienced a normal, natural death, but received upon her burial the glorified state—reunion of body and soul—that is the ultimate end for which all we faithful pray.

In their aesthetic emphasis, though, the two feasts are utterly different: In all the Roman Catholic portrayals of the event that I have seen, Mary is bright-faced and young—evoking the description of the woman “clothed with the sun” from Revelation. [Read more...]

Everyone Deserves Clean Grout and Starched Linen

Pie Counter (1963), Wayne Thiebaud For my junior high school Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Lesca Black, who taught me how to press every seam once you’d sewed it, and for Dr. Sandra DeJong, who said she thought I might be a feminist, after all.

It all began, I suppose, with the hardbound set of Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks my mother ordered by subscription, lined up on a kitchen shelf between utilitarian metal bookends.

There was one hardbound volume for each European region, and multiple volumes for the regional cuisines of America, each covered in darkly-lit photographs reminiscent of still-life paintings. The volume for France had a picture of a cheese soufflé; the book for Austria (Austria?) had a gingerbread house frosted with royal icing and studded with candies—a Middle American fantasy of an Alpine Christmas.

“Let’s make that!” I always said to the nearby humoring adults, who were willing to let me make a mess in the kitchen but were not otherwise interested in “projects.” [Read more...]

Moving to Stillness

Last Thursday morning I got up, made my son’s lunch, made sure that both children were dressed and fed. My husband had left for work at his news job hours before. I pulled back my long hair, graying at the roots—time for a touch-up—grabbed the keys and the steel mug of coffee, and piled my son and daughter into the car.

At seven forty-five we were rounding the Beltway, the sun an arc in the sky behind us, the radio tuned on Pharrell and Imagine Dragons. I drove twenty-three miles to drop my son off at his camp, dropped off my daughter at Greek Orthodox Vacation Bible School, and then threaded my way through traffic from the Quicken Loans National Golf Championship to the nearest Starbucks, where I wrote a grant proposal asking for $300,000. I was under the gun, because I had to pick up my daughter at noon.

By late afternoon, though, I was miles away and all alone, at least as alone as one can get on the 4:06 p.m. Metroliner to New York Penn Station. I resigned myself to the spotty Wi-Fi. The train bore forward along its rusted, hundred-year-old tracks, curving through the row-house blocks and abandoned factories of Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia, along the Atlantic seaboard and then into New Jersey. [Read more...]

Snapshots from the Imperial City


My children attend a school that sits in rented space in the middle of Historic Rock Creek Cemetery, high upon a hill on the edge of the Petworth neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Although the school itself is an independent Catholic Montessori school, the three-hundred year old cemetery—one of the nation’s oldest—is firmly steered by its overseeing Episcopal congregation whose church sits at its center, in the manner in which Anglican institutions once exerted a patrician mastery over a burgeoning republic.

The living Episcopal congregation is nearly as ghostly as the far larger one that ranges over the vivid green grounds. But though lesser known than some of Washington, D.C.’s other historic cemeteries, the silent fields of Rock Creek are lined and numbered with stones and elaborate mausolea with the same names that are found on street signs and law firms all over town. A fair number of the formerly prominent include departed journalists. [Read more...]

Mystery and (Southern) Manners

It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of question I get all the time, but I don’t think I am the only one who has faced it: Am I more religious because I am a Southerner (as most of my Yankee friends seem to think), or do I seem more Southern because I am religious—never mind the fact that I am a longtime, generally happy exile to the Northeast Corridor?

I’m sending this question out not only to some of the other Southerners who have proceeded through “Good Letters”—A.G. Harmon, Kelly Foster, Tony Woodlief (A.G., Kelly and I are from Mississippi, and Kelly and I are even from the same town)—but to all of you out there who might have some input on the matter.

For what so many of us Southerners—even those of us who are not, ahem, writers—seem to share is a great and abiding sense of mystery about the world. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, in the main, even now, most of us grew up around codes of manners and behavior that were commonly known, but rarely spoken of, and there was even less discussion about the realities of class and race that were all around us. And we could go off on long tangents about the various implications.

Whatever the reason, it is a characteristic of my life that the world has constantly seemed (and continues to seem) to be filled with portents about nearly everything, turns of circumstance that seem significant, as though a narrative arc cuts through my life as sharply as a ray of sun.

[Read more...]