My interview with The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion author Sonja Livingston: Part I

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Sonja Livingston, author of The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion  Photo credit: Gregory Gerard

What does the term “Rust Belt” conjure for you?

Rust itself requires steel, water, and neglect–three things gritty cities across the post-industrial landscape of America know well. With the decline of industry and population in Rust Belt cities like my native Cleveland and my mother’s native Buffalo, many of the people there have seen their Catholic churches shuttered. With the churches goes the sacred art–statues and other devotional items. Some are lost, and some (almost miraculously) are found again.

In Sonja Livingston latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the award-winning writer goes on a quest to find a missing blue-cloaked statue of the Virgin Mary from her childhood church in Rochester, New York. Her unexpected return to her home parish offers her “an occasion to travel through space and time to explore the changes in the larger Church and in her own life.”

I adored this book for its lyrical and honest portrayal of a journey of the spirit. It’s a journey relatable to spiritual seekers of all kinds–as rooted in the gritty earth as it is to the sacred. And I loved my conversation about it with Sonja and hope you do, too.

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Sonja, in your Author’s Note that starts your book, you describe yourself as “astonished,” to find yourself back at your childhood church in Rochester. With all that has gone wrong with our childhood churches in the Rust Belt–and the institution of the Catholic Church–why was this journey the right one for you to take?

Great question. What we’re drawn to really matters! Our memories, dreams, obsessions, worries—these are arrows pointing to our material as writers and human beings. The trick is to trust those arrows—even and especially when they make no sense. I spent lots of time wondering why I kept returning to my old church and while I developed a few theories, the most important takeaway relates to faith. Not faith in the doctrinal sense, but faith in the raw sense. As in, not being sure about something but proceeding anyway.

For me, writing itself is a tremendous act of faith.

That said, there’s no getting around the Church’s problems. Their stance on issues of sexuality and gender, as well the abuse scandals and cover-ups, have sent people packing. When I left church in my 20s, I believed that Catholicism was either good or bad. Going back required that I blast those categories wide open. Most churches and religions are a mix of bad and good, ugly and beautiful, vulgar and holy. To get the good, I needed to put up with some of the bad—not all the bad, or the really bad, of course. Still, love and trouble often go hand and hand. You won’t see that on any greeting card but it seems to be true. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose which troubles visit us—and trouble is, by its very nature, painful. Which is a very long way of saying that this journey was about church but, even more so, about growing my heart enough to contain the mix of pain and joy inherent to all relationships.

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Buy this book here: nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press

So, the narrative thread that binds your essays of devotion together is the mystery of a missing statue of the Virgin Mary from your childhood church, “Queen of a working-class parish,” you call her. Since this is the Rust Belt Girl blog, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what your home parish was like and is like now?

My family of 7 kids and a single mom moved around when I was young—from the northeast section of Rochester to rural Orleans County to an Indian Reservation near Buffalo and back again. The one thing these places had in common was poverty and as I wrote in one of the essays, my family’s one consistency was being among the poorest of families in whatever enclave of poor people we found ourselves.

Corpus Christi Church was a hub we returned to over the years—the one source of beauty of light we could count on when we lived in the city. Like many parishes in the region, it was built to accommodate immigrants who came to work on the Erie Canal, in the railroads and textile factories in the late 19th century. Later, their sons and daughters and grandchildren worked production jobs at Kodak and Xerox or as secretaries and bus drivers. By the time I was on the scene (in the late-1970s and 80s), anyone who could afford to left the neighborhood which resulted in empty pews in all those old churches their grandparents had worked so hard to build.

Today, my old church is one a handful of parishes still open in Rochester’s northeast quadrant. I’m not sure how COVID will impact us as human beings in terms of spirituality and faith, but I’m guessing it will be the end for many parishes such as my own which were barely holding on before the pandemic. But for now, the church is still a place of beauty and light in my life—and one I appreciate all the more as its survival becomes more tenuous.

“What is this attachment?” to the Prince Street Virgin, you ask yourself early in your book. The importance of statues and relics and other devotional items can seem pretty strange to non-Catholics. In your essay “The Heart is a First-Class Relic,” you visit a shrine in Montreal that contains the preserved heart of a saint. In your thinking and writing—for a reader—how do you move past the foreign, strange, and even grotesque of our religion to a place that might engender more universal searching?

These essays were, in part, an attempt to explore those aspects of tradition I thought I’d outgrown or never quite understood. Whether it’s the statues at church or the bloody images of Jesus or the use of relics, I’ve come to realize that Catholic devotional practices often underscore the belief that the world is saturated with the divine. If the physical objects and elements at church—like holy water, statues, or stained glass—can be sacred, so too can things outside the building. Which is to say that some of these seemingly strange Catholic traditions are about making the sacred visible, tangible, solid, and real in people’s lives.

I hope this is relatable to people regardless of belief or background. So many of us recognize this in nature—the way the sun lights up new leaves or the pure magic of dogwood blossoms. And no matter how we explain it, often feel buoyed by such physical manifestations of beauty/holiness/light.

The Catholic religion is very much body-centered. Over most altars we see a crucified, bloodied Christ, nailed to a cross. In your writing in this book and your memoir of childhood, Ghostbread, you are very attuned to the body: from girlhood, when your body often went hungry, through adolescence to womanhood. Your reaction to returning to church is described as a feeling—not a lofty spiritual feeling, but a feeling in your body. You write: “…my body returned to a church pew as if it were an old love.” The sense of devotion as a body-centered act—do you feel that’s a bridge even non-believers can cross to understand your essays more fully?

You’re so right, Catholicism is all about the body! The celebration of the mysterious transformation of the bread to Body is the very heart of the Catholic Mass, for instance. To worship is to kneel, to stand, to sing, to cross yourself, to genuflect and bow.

Devotion is not an exercise of the head.

To participate in the Mass, at least for me, is not about “thinking” but feeling and doing. Like “losing yourself” or “falling” in love, the body seems to take over as the mind spins and second-guesses.

Regardless of how we label ourselves religiously, we humans are spiritual creatures and I hope most people will relate to the pull of the body in matters of love or hunger and possibly use it as a way to similarly understand the longing for mystery, ritual and faith.

In your inward journey of devotion, you covered a lot of actual miles—part faithful pilgrim, part objective observer. You travel to St. Brigid’s Well in Ireland, to an Orthodox Catholic celebration in Florida, to a Death and Marigold Parade in New Mexico. Is there a destination that didn’t make it into the book you’d like to describe? 

A few Christmases ago, I attended a funeral at the local Catholic Worker House. I was shadowing my parish priest to write a profile and the weekly Mass he was scheduled to celebrate became a funeral service for a man whose family otherwise couldn’t afford one. This wasn’t a “big” destination—it was only a few miles from my house, in fact. But sitting there listening to the gospel choir while looking at a framed photograph of Dorothy Day and this man in his casket and meeting someone from my old neighborhood—all during the height of the holiday season—caused me to think about poverty and gifts in a new way.

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Please check back for Part II of my interview with Sonja Livingston–for more from this book of hers, for her take on teaching students of writing to “notice what’s not being talked about,” and for what Sonja’s writing and reading, right now.

For more about Sonja Livingston and her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, follow the links. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for classroom use around the nation. Sonja’s two other essay collections, Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall, combine history, memory and imagination to illuminate the lives of girls and women. Her writing has been honored with many awards and her essays appear in outlets such as Salon, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, America, Sojourners and are anthologized in many textbooks on creative writing. Sonja is a popular speaker and is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and teaches in the Postgraduate Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Find her here: https://www.sonjalivingston.com/

Quotes and bio pulled from the author’s book and website.

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Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews? See here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

A joyful noise: Discover Prompts, Day 20

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

No joke: my husband thought I was the neighbor’s beagle. OK, let’s back up. You know, as much as I love to sing, I’m not much of a vocal self-starter. In the car, I typically sing along with Evita, Sia, or Fiona (holla if you’ve heard her latest–is it as wild as this Vulture interview with her?).

In the family room, my boys and I butcher Queen and Journey ballads as something of p.j.-wearing chamber music ensemble.

As the newest soprano in my church choir, I spent Advent and the Christmas season joining my voice with others’–led by a choir director who knows how to get the best from us and our vocal chords. (Not squeamish? See vocal chords–not mine–in action, here.)

And so I came to a point in this isolation that I missed it–missed feeling the sound of song start in my guts and travel through my chest into my head all tingly. I felt I needed to sing. Only, the thing about my isolation is that it’s with three other people. What’s one more than trisolation? Anyway, it’s not exactly the introvert’s ideal. So, I warned them, closed my office door, and began. I am not great, or even very good, but I am loud. So, it was during these vocal exercises that my husband mistook my voice for a dog’s.

Reader, we are still married.

Joking aside, it’s been nice to explore the free resources–and plain fun–available to amateur singers on YouTube. I like vocal coach Madeleine Harvey’s warm ups and especially her video on head voice. Freya Casey, a German opera singer and vocal coach, also leads singers through exercises and has a “How to Sing” series that breaks down popular songs–including Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.” All it takes is 17 minutes, folks. Or, a lifetime. Still, it’s fun to try. And then there’s swoony Josh Groban’s latest isolation-themed #ShowerSongs series. Sorry, Grandma, he’s fully clothed. But check out that subway tile.

So, tell me, how are your hobbies going in isolation, trisolation, or otherwise?

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Music. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

Shining through

One of my kids made this “stained glass” in art class. It’s all the stained glass I’ll see this Easter, with churches shuttered. I’d like to say it’s enough, but I miss the rituals, symbols, and ceremony so in evidence in the Catholic Church. I miss singing with the choir.

But it’s going to have to be enough, this simple holiday. Our few voices in prayer. A meal together in lieu of Communion. Our health and home, when so many are suffering with much less.

I wish them, and you–all of us–peace and light, today. Happy Easter!

~Rebecca

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Light. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other Prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more.

Open…water, heart, art: Discover Prompts Day 2

My boys and me on open water, cruising on the Rebecca T. Ruark (no relation but regional) one of the oldest working skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay

I’m trying to remain open, these days of isolation, to what might pass for connection now. I try not to rail against the world for small annoyances–and thereby close my heart to possibilities. I try not to cry at the faulty internet connection that makes me drop my first-ever Zoom call. I should be happy for technology, for the virtual happy hour with my friends in town, happy to have friends, a town, a house, a basement I can sit in–which is dry despite all the rain–where the Wi-Fi works best.

Another friend dropped toilet paper at my kitchen door today–the best kind of pandemic calling card. Yet another friend, far away, is teaching her four-year-old his letters and decided to bring pen pals back. My own boys are practicing their cursive on loose-leaf (I’m glad we don’t have to re-purpose for the bathroom) and have discovered the joys of snail mail. My freelance work has me writing for hospitals, which makes fiction feel not just false but useless. My creative writing is changed, not closed, but working through different channels now.

A novelist friend, when addressing how to write at such a time as this, suggested acting like a different kind of artist. Writers, try on your dancing shoes. Performers, take to the page. That kind of thing. I desperately miss singing in my choir, raising my voice in song. I’ve written about it here and here and mused on singing for Ruminate, here. But I don’t seem to be able to open my mouth in song today.

I recent days, I have written a short essay and a flash fiction piece, departures from my WIPs–historical novels that don’t let me address this present moment. It’s a moment I don’t want to close myself off from–or forget–for the lessons it might teach me. Meanwhile, I should be teaching my kids; we should be writing a middle grade book together. Maybe we will, and set the story in a wooden boat.

The day before my state’s governor issued the latest isolation mandates, my husband and sons took to the water. My younger twin named the dinghy, “Aqua Dove”–big name for a small boat. With oars, a centerboard, and a little sail, I hope it will give my boys a sense of freedom on open water, when this is over.

WordPress is doing daily Discover Prompts. This was my response to Discover Prompts, Day 2: Open. I hope you might join in!

The Dead Mom Club…and other lessons in grief

How are you? Three words. That’s about all we need to say right now, or during any period of grief, isn’t it? Then listen to the answer. But, let’s chat awhile. Really, what else do you have going on right now?

True story: lots of the typical emotional terribleness happened to me after my mom died, but there were some bright spots, too. Among them my induction into the Dead Mom Club.

Mom

OK, it’s not a real club–or maybe it is and my invitation’s been lost in the mail for 14 years. But, suddenly, I had a monumental thing in common with many people. However, being 30 at the time, I wasn’t friends with lots of those people. Most of my friends still had both their parents. But my husband had a couple friends who’d lost a parent on the youngish side–and suddenly we had this life-changing fact in common. That’s heavy. Whether we wanted to be or not (I choose not!) we were members of the same grief club.

Now, here we are in 2020, suffering from grief as a global entity. It’s a much bigger club no one gets out of belonging to. Let’s just hope the dues don’t skyrocket.

Sure, it’s grief we’re feeling–not that I recognized it as such, right away. It took something novelist Amber Sparks (a fellow native Midwesterner) and the funniest writer on Twitter said:

I just thought ‘I should call my mom, I need a mom right now,’ and I felt immense relief, and then I remembered my mom is dead and I am my own mom now.

Amber Sparks @ambernoelle, author of And I Do Not Forgive You

Oh, it’s grief alright–even if the symptoms manifest differently for each of us. Even if we’re grieving different stuff on our own micro level. For me that’s missing experiencing the regular-level penitential stuff of Lent, rather than this penance on steroids. That’s taking part in a spring Lit Walk in my old ‘hood of Richmond, VA. That’s watching my kids play with friends that are not their twin. And don’t forget eating anywhere besides my own house.

Yep, what started as ennui is making its way through the ol’ stages of grief named by Kübler-Ross and co. Don’t believe me? Ask Harvard.

Now that we can name this heaviness, maybe we can do something about it. In the Harvard Business Review piece, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” writer Scott Berinato interviews David Kessler (one of Kübler-Ross’s and co.) for ideas on how to manage our pandemic-induced grief. My top takeaways and my own spins:

  1. “Acceptance…is where the power lies”
  2. Don’t ignore your anxious thoughts, but “find balance in the things you’re thinking”
  3. Let go of what you can’t change, and focus on what’s in your control (i.e. washing your hands for the 512th time today)
  4. Pull meaning from grief–for instance, appreciating the connections we can still make through the miracles of tech (i.e. what we bloggers have known all along!)
  5. Allow your feelings to happen

I’ll admit it took awhile for this grief to hit me. I was busy figuring out how I was going to manage my kids’ schooling on top of my work and the care and feeding of boys all day. I got lost in the minutia. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Bricks of song. Follow me here: my choir director reached out with a choral piece on YouTube to share–because we choir members have been unable to share our voices with each other. So, I listened to the gorgeous choral strains and ugly-cried all over my keyboard. And then I felt a little better.

I’m not going to pat myself on the back for reaching the level of acceptance, because grief isn’t linear. I know that all too well.

But I also know that we’re in this club together, and for that I’m happy.

So, how are you? How have you been keeping? What have you done this week that’s made you smile? (Around here, we traveled in the way-back machine to introduce the boys to Jim Henson’s Muppets. Last night it was The Muppet Movie–I highly recommend.)

Have a little time on your hands for some more reading? I’ve been busy with my editing gig at Parhelion Literary Magazine, and wrote a short essay here. It’s light and optimistic and nature-y. If you like that, I encourage you to read around PLM’s Winter 2020 issue, with short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and nonfiction for every literary taste.

A Strange Communion

From my second wedding–same groom
as the first. A story for another day.

The holy water font had brown cardboard over it–a haphazard lid to signal emptiness. The water had been drained from all the fonts at the church entrances but not the baptismal font. Not yet anyway; somebody said there was one baptism after Mass that morning. I saw the baby–rosy-cheeked in his mother’s arms–on my way out of church. My last Mass, maybe for all of Lent. My last time singing with the choir. I haven’t sung a note since, as if doing so would signal that this is the new normal: sad, bad impromptu soprano solos locked in my home office, dressed in my bathrobe, alone.

Gone was the singing in communion, the holy water, the hand-holding, and hand-shaking at the Sign of Peace. The next week, there would be no Mass at all. Should we shake some of our holy water around the house? My husband and I brought bottles home from Knock, Ireland, the only shrine I’ve ever visited, which we did for a day on our honeymoon, in between pubs and church ruins. We may have a bottle around still, though it might have gone moldy. We’ve been married 16 years as of yesterday. We got carry-out to celebrate, our first since we started playing keep-away from everybody we don’t live with, and it was wonderful. Every stranger-interaction–even picking up carry-out at a curb–seems imbued with a little holiness now, or grace, or gratitude in communing, however you like to see it.

Maybe I’d been spoiled by the choir voices around me, the Signs of Peace aplenty, a whole church full of, if not all friends, congregants–the whole of us choosing to be in the same place at the same time, for the same reason, more or less. I try to remember that it only takes two or three gathered in His name, but there is comfort in a crowd. In Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, a title that just keeps feeling more and more prescient, author Nick Ripatrazone says, simply: “Catholicism is a communal faith.”

In his book of essays, Ripatrazone unveils the role of Catholic storytelling in the American literary cannon. He takes the reader from Flannery O’Connor through Andre Dubus to living writers, like Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott–and Phil Klay (whom I’ve yet to read)–among others. Raised on the Mass, these writers share some sensibilities: the idea of faith in community, of liturgical seasons–rituals a comfort. Says Ripatrazone, “Catholics raised on a religion of mystery, image, smell, and song are particularly vulnerable to the pull of sentimentality.” Can me sentimental then.

Another modern novelist, Ann Patchett, has credited the Catholic faith for giving her “a boundless capacity for creativity and appreciation for metaphor.” If you’ve ever stepped foot in a Catholic church you can probably see that: everything is imbued with meaning. From Ripatrazone:

Catholicism is an assault on the senses. The thickly sweet smell of incense clouding a church. A finger dipped into the holy water fount; the almost otherworldly touch of it. The feel of a back against the hard pew…The Rise and refrain of hymns…the silence of prayer…the high drama of Lent.

It all means something, more than one thing. And certainly, there’s a performance aspect to the faith that isn’t lost on this Catholic kid raised on church and ballet–pretty much in equal measure. I recently, mistakenly, called the altar “the stage,” and it’s no wonder why. There’s the Mass’s “script,” with its accompanying ritualistic movements–very much body-centered–a reverential dance of signs and postures. There are “costumes” whose colors are filled with meaning. Right now, we’re penitential purple. Are we ever.

Which might be why that piece of ordinary brown cardboard over the drained holy water font bothered me so much–the lack of performance or ritual. Or, preparation. Ritual takes preparation, and none of us had any rehearsals for the effects of this pandemic.

So, my hope today is that we all lean into the rituals that provide us some comfort and connection–even if virtual.

What are you reading? How are you dealing? What rituals are you keeping or instilling in your household as you physically distance yourself from others?

Looking for a new author to read, a poet or memoirist? Check out my handy categories above, where you’ll find my writer interviews, book reviews, essays, writing advice, and more.

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Open Wide

Image by Erich Westendarp from Pixabay

Nope, not a post on eating, or on embouchure (a new favorite word meaning lipping, or using the lips, face, tongue, and teeth to play an instrument–including our first instrument, our voice). But close.

Today I’m going to talk about singing. Yep, on a reading and writing blog. Stop me. You’ve heard me say here before that my next-life career plan is to be an opera singer. I feel pretty confident my lack of planning for the rigors of this job isn’t going to bite me in the ass, since I’m pretty sure my next-life ass will be incorporeal.

Lack of planning for this-life careers can hurt, however. Which is why I want to talk about the glories of hobbies and my new hobby. Wait for it…

Backstory: I was never one much for hobbies. By the time I was in middle school, ballet had progressed from hobby to vocation, as serious as a religious calling in my mind: all time-consuming and all identity-consuming. I was not a girl with hobbies but direction.

When injury knocked me off that career path, I briefly considered going to culinary arts school. I mean, I liked to cook–it was fun. Why not make a job of it? (Truth be told, I think I was just excited to, finally, eat.)

Next stop: English major. And here I am, writing for my job-and-passion.

However, it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve been able to start separating job-and-passion and realize I don’t have to make a gig of everything I’m passionate about.

So, we arrive at singing. My mom and her mom both enjoyed singing, both sang with their church choirs, and plied Christmas carols at the piano on the eve. (Can you hear my children groaning at the very thought?) Neither woman conspired to rise in the ranks of the choral world or make a single cent off their voices.

Is it me, or does today’s gig economy-mindset encourage us to turn any talent, penchant, or hobby into a job? To monetize passion. And in doing that, does the passion remain? (I’ll let you know from the afterlife how the opera goes.) Here and now, I have to say, I started this blog as a little passion project and have rejected the idea of making money from it–maybe, partly, because it would make blogging a job. (And I have one of those already.) Do hobbies now smack of privilege?

They say that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life—but what if what you love becomes nonstop work?

From “The Truth About the Gig Economy” by Julia Tache

Who has time for hobbies? Maybe none of us. Maybe we all should be striving to monetize every facet of ourselves. But, really, no one is ever going to pay me to sing.

Yet, that didn’t stop me from belting out the carols as the newest member of the soprano 1 set in my church choir. (Don’t laugh–or do. Either way, I loved it.) I loved it, even when I messed up the last few stanzas of “Come Join the Angels Singing.” I loved it when I probably didn’t quite hit the high note in “Carol of the Bells.” I loved it so much that when my boys hugged me after the concert, I didn’t think to turn the moment into a photo op.

So…jobs, passions, hobbies, gigs. What’s your take? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

But first, Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it. I hope that all the voices you hear sing sweetly as angels!

My interview with award-winning poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis

I’ve developed a love affair with poetry this year. So, I found Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry collection, HAINT, at just the right time. I met the author at a recent literary conference and was delighted to discover that she too grew up in Northeast Ohio. Names and images of our home set the stage in her poems of childhood, such as “East 149th Street (Symphony for a Black Girl)” and “Akron at Night,” but many more of her poems present a powerful universal ode to girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a woman seeking love. Poet Ross Gay, another Northeast Ohio native, said of HAINT, “Although heartbreak is the origin of so many of these poems, it’s love that makes them go. Love to which they plead and aspire and pray.”

Teri was kind and generous enough to tell me more about what makes her poetry–and life–“go.”

Read more