A Distance Not Too Far to Fathom: My review of THE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS

book cover of THE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS by Margo Orlando Littell, with illustrations of plants

Picture London, Paris, or New York. Got it? Now picture Iowa farm country. How about Main Street USA? Easily imaginable places all, even in fiction. Right? Well, you can have them. I’m here to laud the lesser-known and in-between places in books, the fringes, places where the present hasn’t caught up to a promising past, where things are undefined, even messy—and the characters are gritty, trying to make a place their own. I’m here for the settings that remain open to interpretation, invention, and story.

Take Margo Orlando Littell’s recent novel from University of New Orleans Press, for instance.  The Distance from Four Points is set in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, murky territory straddling the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Never heard of it? All the better stage for the author to play out that age-old question:

Can you really go home again?

Quick summary: “Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes.”

In Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the poet says, “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”

By this definition, Margo Orlando Littell is a poet. For me, it’s the setting of Four Points, a fictionalized version of the author’s own hometown, that makes the novel shine. Forty-something MC Robin’s hometown appears to her to be a “poor, indifferent place.” This setting is a lot like the places that dot the Pennsylvania landscape that separates my home in Maryland and my childhood home in Ohio’s Rust Belt, places where invariably my car radio loses NPR’s signal and tunes in only country music. Where tunnels through the mountains, tiled like giant bathrooms, are the highlight of the trip. Where mock-alpine ski resorts attempt to lure passersby off the Pennsylvania turnpike. I’ve happily sped through these places seeking finer points, the reinvented and cosmopolitan Pittsburgh, for one.

The author paints a picture of Four Points from Robin’s perspective: “It was coal country, or used to be, and it wasn’t always terrible. Long before she was born, businessmen made millions here, gaining wealth from the coke ovens in the foothills. Now the crumbling mansions…were barely audible echoes of the town’s better years.” This is a place many leave, but enough stay for unemployment to be high; a place old industry forgot and new-wave industry, like medicine, higher education, and tech, haven’t yet found.

Still, a place like this, steeped in the glories of a crumbling past, isn’t past—but is fully present—to the residents eking out a living there, today. And, upon her return to Four Points, this is a reality Robin has to face, and quick.

The novel starts off rather breathlessly, and we’re thrust into Robin’s predicament. Her husband died and left her with nothing to keep her and her daughter’s heads above water—except some pretty cruddy rentals in her hometown. A hometown she had tried her best to forget, living in a monied Pittsburgh-area enclave, where she’d remade herself—or fooled herself into thinking she had. A “decadence,” of forgetting where she came from and what she did to survive, the author calls it, of forgetting the “familiar equation” of “sex plus money.” This isn’t uncharted territory for women’s fiction—a salacious past comes to haunt the MC’s present—but the author handles it well.

The details of land-lording, re-making this human-built landscape with her smarts and own two hands, raises this bookclub novel to a higher level. Robin, who only recently wouldn’t be caught without her “Va-Va Vino” nail polish, takes to ripping up ruined linoleum in her tenants’ places with those nails, breaking them to the quick. This kind of work, needed to sustain herself and her daughter, does a lot to renew Robin’s sense of self, even in grief. Work, as it often does, has a way of teaching characters (and, by extension, us readers) about their capacity for living: “Tonight, the paint would dry, and in the morning the apartment would be whole. Not new, not beautiful, but ready to live in.”

The author exhibits a local’s keen sense of the distinct sights, sounds, and tastes of this place, where Sheetz and Walmart serve as modern beacons in the wintry gloom. But this is also the kind of place where communities still come out for parades on feast days and fill the same ethnic church pews their grandparents did; at home, old recipes, like Eastern European Halushki, are still passed down to the next generation. Maybe it is in such in-between times, teetering between ages—when will these hills experience their next Gilded age?—when we cling to the traditional foods that comfort, the language (all the “Yinzes!”) shared. Maybe it’s in these moments that we find grace.

I would have liked a bit more rumination in these pages on the grace found in this novel’s place. We get a brief mention of it, and there are fleeting prayers for Robin, who won’t budge from the necessity of sending her daughter to Catholic school, even when money is terribly scarce.

That touch of grace and Robin’s role as landlord reminded me of the biblical parable of the wicked tenants (Robin does have one or two), but more loosely about the need to be worthy “tenants” in this life leased to us here, in the earthly communities we call home. Will Robin turn her back again on her home, on a hard-won livelihood “cleaved to boilers and shingles, sewage stacks and electric grids.” Or, will she waste her gifts, trying to run away from herself again?

I’ll let you read to find out.

In a bit of life imitating art, the author also tried her hand at being a landlord in her hometown during the course of writing this book, and her expertise shows in her prose. You can read about that backstory and everything else related to The Distance from Four Points at her website: margoorlandolittell.com

Paris in springtime? Let’s face it: none of us is flying anytime soon. So, how about Four Points at the turning of a season—from the pages of this engrossing novel:

Robin left Four Points at five, the magical hour when the light over the mountains turned fiery and lit every branch on the maple-blanketed hills. The world was wet and weary, winter pulsing deep as blood, but in the pink sky and dripping ice from the bridges, she sensed spring. It really would come, softening those bristly mountains and coloring the sooty landscape of steel and coal. Another winter was breathing to a close…

From Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance From Four Points

Anyone from such a place will tell you that harsh winters are worth it for the release of spring that follows—springs worth a whole book, and many more trips home.

~~~

Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

Note: I received an electric copy of this book from the author’s publicist, in the hopes I would enjoy it, which I did. The book’s summary and the author’s bio, along with all the quotes, are from the book. The author was kind enough to supply photos (along with their captions) from her hometown.

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

2 workshops, 2 prompts, and 1 weird writing season

Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

Who even am I? Is pandemic time throwing anyone else’s writing for a loop? Just me then?

Really, I remember thinking to myself way back in March that I was going to use the time I was no longer spending driving my kids to and from school to write. I definitely wasn’t going to fill that time with shower-cries or deciding if I’m a chocolate-loving, peanut butter-loving, or original goodness-loving sort of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups connoisseur.

Silly me.

I have, despite these pandemic extracurriculars, been writing some–but certainly not the same as I was. Fiction has been tough-going, but I’ve written some short essays and snippets someone really nice (or related to me) might call prose poems. I’ll say it again: I am not a poet.

And while I’m not a big fan of Zooming as substitute for activities I was engaged with, pre-pandemic; I’ve enjoyed new Zoom opportunities, in particular two writing workshops I wouldn’t have made in person because of distance.

I thought of these workshops, one I attended just yesterday, when Lorna over at Gin & Lemonade mentioned writing prompts. (You’re going to want to visit her if you don’t already.)

Ah, writing prompts. Controversial stuff, right? I’ll admit to assuming most of my writing teachers who started every class with a prompt were using the time to lesson-plan on the fly. Maybe some were. I know I did just that, once I began teaching. As a student, however, I generally used writing prompt time to work on whatever short story or novel chapter I was mulling over, largely ignoring said prompt.

Prompts were for memoirists and poets always gazing longingly out the window for inspiration.

What a stubborn idiot I was. Sure, some prompts don’t hit you right, some work better than others. But the best ones flip a kind of switch in your brain to get at often-forgotten and sometimes really-weird-good material in there. I’d wade through a million mediocre prompts, now, to come across the best ones.

That said, there was no wading in either of the workshops I took this spring–both of which included several generative writing prompts. So, here are a couple of my favorite prompts and my responses.

Maybe one of these will flip your writing switch today?

You might remember that I interviewed poet and editor Jessica Fischoff, just the day before I took her Persona Workshop. Over Zoom from her home in Cincinnati, Jessica discussed persona poetry and character in prose–and then let us writers loose, scribbling to her prompts. Jessica is a prompts queen, but the one that flipped the right switch for me was to…

Use an inanimate object as the persona of a poem or prose piece, and here’s my attempt:

Figures the Ferris Wheel

If I could count, I would tell you
how many proposals I've heard
proposed at the apex of my grand wheel.
How many rings dropped, how many squeals
of delight, and how many women murmured
under their breathes, looked down at their bare fingers
gripping my bar, and said something like
"I have to think," softly, as if they knew I was listening.
I am always listening.

If I could count, I'd tell you how many boys scared girls,
and girls scared boys, shaking my cars, pretending they would 
break a spoke, heave this wheel, and make it all come crashing down
to the ground, where they would keep falling out of fear.
How many times.

~~~

Yesterday’s workshop with memoirist, essayist, and writing professor Sonja Livingston, who I interviewed right here and here for Rust Belt Girl, was also just what I needed to get out of my own way and write for an afternoon: new stuff, which is gratifying (especially when at work on a novel). New starts mean the writing well is not dry, folks! One of my attempts came in response to a prompt inspired by the work of Ross Gay. (If you’ve been here a while you know I’m always, always inspired by Ross Gay.):

Write about a “delight” or a list of “delights” and I picked one of my little guys:

My Son's Buckteeth

the orthodontist wants to fix
the goofy faces he pulls with them
the way his cowlick makes his blond hair stick up
hair that will go dirty like mine
and fall out like my brother's
the fact he still gives a good squeeze I don't have to take
the fact his hugs put him at my chest height but
he doesn't yet think this is weird

~~~

What weird and wonderful stuff have you come up with from a good writing prompt? Let me know if the comments.

What are you reading and writing this week? Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Interview with The Desperate Measure of Undoing author, poet and editor Jessica Fischoff

I interviewed poet and editor extraordinaire Jessica Fischoff for my gig as features editor over at Parhelion Literary Magazine and thought I’d share the interview here at Rust Belt Girl. Not only is Jessica from Ohio (like this girl)–I joked with her that I had to take a second look when first reading her poem “Oh,” which is not short for Ohio–but she lives in Pittsburgh, another legit Rust Belt place. We talked a bit about how her Jewish upbringing has impacted her poetry, about how her poems are inspired by imagery, and about the many exciting things she’s got going on with the journals she edits. I love to see how the mind of a poet and editor ticks–and I think you will too. Take care and have a good weekend, all. ~Rebecca

Parhelion

Rebecca here. The day before attending her fabulously-generative and imaginative workshop, “Writing as the Character in Poetry,” hosted over Zoom by Lit Youngstown, Jessica Fischoff and I chatted about all things writing and editing right now.

Jessica Fischoff is the author of The Desperate Measure of Undoing (Across the Margin, 2019), and editor of the upcoming Pittsburgh Anthology (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2020). She is also the owner/editor of [PANK] Magazine and Books, and American Poetry Journal. Her thoughts on editing appear in Best American Poetry and The Kenyon Review. Her writing appears in Diode Poetry Journal, The Southampton Review, Prelude, Creative Nonfiction, Fjords Review, and Yemassee, among others.

Jessica, I adored your poems in The Desperate Measure of Undoing. There’s so much mystery to be unraveled—from age-old stories from the Bible, from Greek and Roman myths. Your poem “I’ve Been Spreading…

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Who comforts you now?

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Poet Rita Dove: Photo © by Fred Viebahn. Copied, with permission, from Rita Dove’s homepage at http://www.people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/

Who comforts you now that the wheel has broken

the bodies of its makers? Beyond the smoke and
ashes, what you hear rising is nothing but the wind.
Who comforts you? Now that the wheel has broken,

grief is the constant. Hope: the last word spoken.

Rita Dove (from Testimony: 1968)

It’s been a minute. Or, many minutes over several days, minutes made long and weighty—even by coronavirus standards—by the turmoil raging across the U.S., in cities as close as Washington, D.C., and as close to my heart as Richmond, Virginia, and Cleveland. Racial turmoil that’s been roiling since, well, always in America, has erupted in protests.

And so the world grieves, again, more. But then, for many Black Americans grieving over human and civil rights injustices and violence is a constant. We writers like to tout our empathy, but while I’ve known grief, I’ve never known a grief that never subsides. So, what do I know?

As a reader and writer my instinct is to do just that: read and write. I read to know what I don’t know. I write to figure out what I do know and to raise new questions. And repeat. But between the reading and writing, we’re engaging—not just with text in an academic lit-crit way, but with the human being behind the words.

To engage with the community of readers and writers in the American Rust Belt and beyond is why I started this blog more than four years ago. I hope to keep this up, because I love connecting readers with the writers behind some of the literature I love most—poets (like Akron, Ohio, native Rita Dove, above), novelists, essayists, and memoirists—from a place I left behind but am still drawn to.

This blog is not a big platform, and my voice is small, but we bloggers do have the power to amplify the voices of Black writers and poets. There are many ways to do this. First, read Black authors. Thank you to novelist Courtney Maum for making me aware of a couple helpful hashtags to hone in on books for all ages by Black authors: #BlackBookReleases and #ReadingBlack.

If you’re looking to make taller your TBR, here’s a list of highly-anticipated 2020 releases by Black authors. If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you might expect that the 2020 release I’m most excited about this year is Ross Gay’s Be Holding: A Poem. Put a new book on your TBR today. Buy books, and buy them from Black-owned bookstores, if you can. Review these books. Share the work of Black authors whose work you love. I’ve been doing that over at my FB page. Maybe join me there?

Most of the poets and writers I’ve interviewed for Rust Belt Girl I met at literary festivals and readings, oftentimes fairly homogeneous events, if I’m honest. For my part, I aim to seek out more Black voices from my native Rust Belt to feature here. If you consider yourself among this group, I hope you’ll reach out when you can.

Keep safe and sane, everybody, and keep the stories coming.

With hope,

Rebecca

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

sonjalivingston copy
Photo credit: Jones Hendershot

Part II of my interview with Sonja Livingston continues our discussion of her new book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. We talk feminism and the need for human connection in faith. Sonja also offers her take on teaching students of writing–and the rest of us–to “notice what’s not being talked about,” and fills us in on what she’s writing, right now. (Missed Part I of the interview? Find it here.)

Sonja, as if writing about faith and devotion weren’t a hard enough sell in today’s fairly secular literary world, you’ve noted before that as a professor of writing, students often bristle at the use of the “R word,” religion. How do you encourage your students or other writers to get past the initial bristling to explore their relationship with faith—or any other challenging aspect of identity?

I encourage students to write about what’s important to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s important to me, their mothers, their best friends, their social media followers. This is so simple, but it’s tough.  

It used to be that writing about issues related to abuse, trauma, and sexuality was especially risky, but those subjects have become standard fare in nonfiction writing workshops these days. In other words, what’s hard to open up about today is not the same as a decade ago. And what we’ll be afraid to speak (or write) in ten years will likely be different still. But I tell my students that this is where the power is. To notice what’s not being talked about, what subjects make us feel shame or small or tender. This might be something as big as religion or spirituality, but it might also be relatively minor, like the TV show character you’re obsessed with or the voice message you keep on your phone and listen to when you are alone. I remind students that whether we write about religion or our crush from 7th grade, HOW we write is at least as important as WHAT we write. Keeping the focus on the process helps writers to see that any topic tackled honestly and with humility and curiosity can be the stuff of powerful writing.

In one of the essays in your book, “Act of Contrition,” you journey to southern Louisiana to meet the priest who has converted an old ambulance into a mobile confessional, what he calls a Spiritual Care Unit. The priest drives around through Cajun country, offering the sacrament to the Catholics in the area. With the pandemic, local churches around the country have gotten creative—streaming Mass and even doing drive-through confessions. Through your own devotional journey, how do you reconcile all that hasn’t changed in our very traditional Church with all that could or should? 

This is such a good question. It’s maybe THE question. Of course, I have opinions about what should change in the Church and I tend be friends with people who hold similar opinions, so they become pretty firmly entrenched. But I also understand that our opinions don’t actually change much. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I can (and do) write what I love about the liturgy or a good priest or an old prayer—and even, at times, criticize what seems so blatantly wrong—but ultimately, the Church has shown itself unconcerned with popular opinion and is even dying, in many places, rather than change. I suppose, on some level, I believe that people have a profound need for reverence. Wow. This is a very long way of answering the question! Basically, I try to find balance between my opinions and letting things be, while trusting in the human need for meaning and connection and hoping that this very difficult phase for traditional religion will lead to some sort of rebirth. 

I love a detour essay, and “A Brief History of Prayer,” is a great example of that. On a trip to visit a monastery in Georgia, you instead end up succumbing to a desire to see the ocean and wind up in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The essay is a lyrical, historical exploration of the Wright Brothers’ flight punctuated by notes on the history of prayer—and your own imagining of what might have been the first prayer, “the moment Adam first saw Eve.” What follows is my favorite passage in the book:

…and perhaps because one of his bones had been recently stolen, the cage over his heart had loosened and freed up space for the first prayer to launch from his still-tender chest.

Here, Eve is being looked upon, as we look upon our statues of Mary. We talk a lot about gazing and gazes in literary criticism and in feminist works. Do you think of yourself as a feminist? If so, how does your writing and your Mary fit in?

This is such an interesting question, because, of course, both Eve and Mary are gazed upon—gazing upon Mary is a Catholic tradition, in fact. That said, I do consider myself a feminist. In that section (and thank you for your kind words!) Eve is both an object of enthrallment and the source of essential action as I imagined circumstances for the first human prayer. I suppose I was using Eve (and Adam) to look at the various occasions when humans tend to pray—usually times of tremendous fear and love and desperation.

I’m also thinking that gazing at Mary is more than merely gazing at a pleasing female figure. It is, in some ways, a meditative act. Catholics don’t tend to use this language because it sounds too Eastern or New Agey—but, like candles and incense, a holy image can help center and focus our attention as we pray/meditate.

I have to also admit that while I now see Mary as a figure of peace and love, I rejected poor Mary for years because she seemed such an anti-feminist symbol. As a young woman I was embarrassed by what I saw as tacky Marian displays and a submissive girlish figure. My mother had a bathtub Virgin once and I was not a fan. Now I wish I could go back in time. I’d bring a buckets of pink flowers and plant them at her feet.

In your memoir and in this book, you explore the physical space of your church—a second home to you as a child. We Catholics have been away from our physical places of worship for a couple months now. How is that for you?

It’s been really tough. I’m answering some of these questions on a Sunday after trying and failing to Zoom into Mass. My church has limited resources and the technology isn’t consistently up to snuff. But even when I do manage to connect on Zoom, it’s nice, of course to see people and hear the prayers, but the physicality that is so important is simply not there. Not only the church, but the statues, the ability to receive Communion. I’ve found myself starting to light candles and sit still at home or listen to music and talk softly with my husband every night before bed. It’s not prayer exactly, but the time is sacred and has made the isolation not only bearable but even beautiful at times.

In your memoir, Ghostbread, you worked against the stereotype that says a girl who looks like you can’t be impoverished, can’t live in a slum. I feel like in this book you’re working against the stereotype that says an educated, reasonable person can’t also be a person of faith—that we can’t hold worldly intelligence and mystery at the same time. You write: “Devotion alone may not translate to transformation…But it’s equally true that many of us have been too quick to dismiss it as an essential entry point in our attempt to build meaningful lives.” Thank you for letting this reader in on your journey! What are you working on now? What are you reading?

That’s such a smart way of framing things! I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. But yes, a lot of my writing is about letting people know what can’t be seen or known on the surface of things. I often use a writing prompt with my students that asks them to make a list of things that others can’t tell about them simply by looking at them. The lists are always rich. And you are right on about this book. It was about exploring/challenging that apparent dichotomy (between education and faith) for myself and others.

As for what I’m reading: I just found Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin. Both are very short experimental novels which interest me because I’m working on a very short experimental novel set in Niagara Falls, New York. In fact, I started on the novel before writing these essays. It deals with similar questions—about tradition, religion, family— in a much more embodied way. My main character is a pregnant teen who shows up to her old aunt’s house. The question is what she’ll do about the pregnancy but the action centers around their planning of a communal feast celebrated in certain regions of the U.S., including western New York. So basically, I’m still writing about gritty cities and tradition and what it means to break bread together—how we might find and love each other even as things fall apart.

***

 

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

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. She is married to the artist Jim Mott and splits her time between New York State and Virginia. Find her here: https://www.sonjalivingston.com/

For Part I of my interview with Sonja, click here.

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

***

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

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

Show me your poem of isolation reads

Just stack ’em up, any which way. Or, spend an hour creating your poem made up of titles you’ve read during the COVID-19 situation. (This doesn’t include my Google books, and does include books that I’m perpetually reading and a journal issue in which my words appear, but you get the picture.)

I didn’t come up with this idea, (shout-out to fellow blogger Lani, for introducing me to Steph @pieladybooks) but I think you can take a bit of license: add an article or two, play with punctuation and line breaks, of course. I went all ee cummings-lowercase, so the capitalization didn’t distract from the meaning. And my apologies to the late Sherwood Anderson, but I couldn’t help myself. Here it is, my poem of isolation reads. How about that near-rhyme at the end, right? Watch out, poets! And go ahead and suggest a title, if you’ve got one.

the heart is a full-wild beast, longing for an absent god
ruminate the everyday: old brown shiner, winesburg
o,
hi
o, find me!
magdalene, the virgin of prince street.
what you become in flight?
a catalog of unabashed gratitude, the book of delights

I’d love to see your poem of isolation reads! Still working on your reading arc–I’d love to see that, too.

I’ve done my best to chart and reflect on my family’s isolation here, even as restrictions begin to ease. Recreational boating is allowed again, so my guys will be back in Aqua Dove, that most glorious dinghy, soon. Maybe I’ll write a poem about it. Maybe not.

Want to read more of my isolation posts? I responded to WordPress Discover Prompts in April!–and you can, too. There’s no such thing as late work in blogging.

Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

What your reading arc says about you

Image by Giacomo Zanni from Pixabay

Hi, and how are you?

If you’re well, I hope you’re reading. If you’re reading, maybe you want to consider your reading arc. I never really had before. But, a Twitter contact, @MattWeinkam, associate director of Lit Cleveland, proposed a fun exercise for us reader sorts:

Chart your reading arc from childhood to present day in 10 books. After a bit of thinking, here’s mine:

A Very Young Dancer>Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret>Their Eyes Were Watching God>Come to Me: Stories>The Innocent>The Fortunate Pilgrim>Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir>Bel Canto>Magdalene: Poems>The Book of Delights: Essays

Of course, there are so many books I love that I had to leave out. If I had 11 slots, I would have added a craft book: maybe Stephen King’s On Writing, which was probably the first craft book I read; or maybe the classic, Donald M. Murray’s The Craft of Revision, which I return to again and again, of course; or maybe the recent Meander, Spiral, Explode (I talked about that one here) by Jane Alison, which upended so many writing “rules.”

What does my reading arc say about me? A lot you already know.

I was a dancer, myself, and a Catholic, drawn to the story aspects of both, I suppose. At 19, I moved from Ohio to Virginia–I left out my Tom Robbins obsession (remember Jitterbug Perfume?). College days brought courses like African American Autobiography and opened my eyes to stories outside what my mom had on her bookshelves from college in the 60s.

Short stories were my entry into the craft of writing–and Amy Bloom is one of my favorite story writers. (Good story collections are great writing teachers.)

Grad school left little time for pleasure reads, but when I could, I liked early Ian McEwan and books that informed my own writing.

If it’s not dance, song in story is a running theme. And for this writer who managed to get an MFA without writing a poem, I read a lot of poetry these days–and essays and hybrids of all sorts. And I think, you could say, I’m arcing toward joy in my reading habits.

I hope that means I’m arcing toward joy in life. I need it now more than ever.

So, show me your reading arc–in the comments or on your own blog. You might be surprised at what it reveals about your reading and your life.

Let’s read together. 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

Small things: Discover Prompts, Days 29 and 30

My gratitude stops short of thanking the tiny tick I found on my hip. But if this period of isolation and fear due to the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it’s taught me to value the small things.

There are the gardening gloves given to me by one of my boys–for Mother’s Day, last year, I think. They are actually a little small for my long fingers, but they are also a beautiful turquoise. So I admired them as I weeded the flower beds around our house, yesterday afternoon–for a short time only, because my husband is a fastidious gardener, which is not a small thing.

Then there are the lilies of the valley I picked, which haven’t been overrun by the hulking hostas, this year, and whose little bells smell so sweet.

And then there’s the tree swing made by my dad, upon which I had a good swing after weeding and flower-picking–yep, this lady swinging away. It didn’t even make me nauseous, which is a pleasant small thing.

Today, it’s a soggy mess out there. But yesterday it was warm and clear and it seemed every neighbor was out cleaning his gutters, mowing the grass, or weed-whacking: in-town sounds, a minor suburban symphony.

My husband was in the veggie garden. Our boys finished their school work and came outside to join us, and eventually my little family lay down in the grass, feeling the springtime sun on our faces.

Enter the tick.

And…

Fin.

Many thanks to the WordPress editors for providing daily WordPress Discover Prompts in April! They helped me to chronicle our isolation. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompts: List and Grateful. Read others’ responses here. My other prompts responses:

Don’t be a stranger. 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

Mood: Discover Prompts, Day 28

“Harmony”

Cloudy. Off-kilter. A bit out-of-focus. This vessel will right itself, too.

How are you?

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Focus. 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