Light in the Darkness: Literary Chiaroscuro in the Work of Tove Jansson

Photo by Tristan Pokornyi on Pexels.com

Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.

In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.

Translator Thomas Teal provides the introduction to the edition of Jansson’s The Summer Book I’m reading. He informs us that Jansson wrote this novel the year after her mother died, and there is grief reflected in the story she wrote. However, as with all Jansson’s writing, the master of brevity used a light touch. This novel follows six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother through their days over a single summer, living in a small house on a very small Finnish island. It’s all fairly placid, in the way that living close to nature is. You could say nothing happens, if nothing is living in accordance (mostly) with the surrounding flora and fauna, water and weather, and the occasional human visitor.

However, the driving force behind the days and emotions experienced by these characters is, as Teal notes, a “single event, so fleetingly mentioned as to be almost occult: ‘Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.'”

The novel’s chapters, each with their own title, work as stand-alone stories; taken together we get a tapestry of summer days–ups and downs, ebbs and flows. These are simple, but not simplistic, stories, accumulating in a universe that feels like the Northern Lights must, like magic. Author and reviewer Ali Smith says it best, I think:

[Jansson’s] writing is all magical deception, her sentences simple and loaded; the novel reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth.

Ali Smith

Jansson’s short stories, likewise, remind me of a trick of light. Their simple premises offer layers of meaning–like shading reveals a truer shape of a two-dimensional drawn object. From Jansson’s collection, The Listener (1971), some “simple” plot summaries: a squirrel invades the routine life of a lonely old woman. A Japanese artist comes to Finland seeking dangerous animals–“Very savage, if you please.”–and the narrator helps him find some. A storm comes, and a former lover calls.

There’s Tove in the foreground.

In her introduction to the story collection at right, contemporary American novelist Lauren Groff notes Jansson’s education as an academy-trained painter, in Jansson’s recognition of the importance of shading in art of all kinds. “The darkness is as essential as the joyous and equally perilous light,” Groff writes.

“The light and the dark give each other definition.”

This long year of 2020 has dealt out a good bit of darkness–even during summer’s light. The trick is seeing it as shading that shapes and brings to the fore our concept of joy–shading I look for as I live and read and try to use what I read as inspiration for what I write.

Recently, in a virtual book club I belong to, we members were discussing another short story collection, and there was some grumbling about the lack of joy in the stories. I got to thinking about what a complicated thing joy is. Anybody who’s been around this blog a while knows what a fan I am of the poet and essayist Ross Gay, who writes a lot about “delights,” which typically don’t smack us on the head with joy but surprise us with small moments of the stuff. (Too much and we might not recognize it–become joy-gluttons, maybe?) Reading, for me, is a joyous act of discovery, made all the more delightful by traveling through darkness to reach a spot of sun, humor in defeat, or the absurd in the mundane. Light in the darkness. It’s worth the sometimes sad and even perilous journey–we writers know the act of writing can feel like that kind of cavernous darkness–to seek the light.

This isn’t just writer-reader talk here, but life talk. How hard my life would be if I went around expecting joy and light at every turn. And how boring! I’d much rather wander a bit, in life and art, swim dark waters, or traverse a dark forest once in a while, and be surprised by the delightful–even joyous–way the sunlight filters through the canopy of leaves above.

So, tell me, who are you reading? Do you read with the seasons? Do you read for joy, beauty? Are you inspired by your reading, to write? I highly recommend picking up absolutely anything by Tove Jansson. My boys are working their way through the Moomin tales right now.

And for one final thought:

We read Tove Jansson to remember that to be human is dangerous, but also breathtaking, beautiful.

Lauren Groff

* Featured image by Mari Huistinoja from Pixabay

On *Not* Writing

First off, let me confess right here that I have read one and only one Stephen King book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I know. I could promise you that I will change my ways, and pick up Carrie or maybe the epic, The Stand. But I’m not about to make a promise I know I won’t keep. Time is short and my TBR is a leaning tower that grows taller by the day.

While it’s been a while since I read On Writing for a grad school class, one scene from King’s craft memoir sticks out in my mind. It features a young King up after the rest of his family is asleep in their trailer, using a washing machine as a writing desk. I can picture him hunkered over it, writing his horror-inducing, future-bestselling heart out.

Now that scene stands as a sort of gritty yet romantic image of the aspiring novelist who will stop at nothing to write–everyday–no matter what.

And, it’s an image that can serve us writers well–and ill.

Because, hear me out, there’s more to writing than the writing part. Novelist Lauren Groff put it better than I could on Twitter several days ago, and she went on to explain herself in a thread. But the initial tweet rang true for me, and maybe it will for you, too:

I don’t know who needs to hear this today (I do), but the vast majority of the time one spends writing a book isn’t spent in writing the book, but rather reading, dreaming, running, walking, experimenting, restarting, writing things that gradually bring you closer to the book.

Lauren Groff via Twitter

Something like 3.5 thousand retweets of Groff’s tweet later, and let’s assume quite a few writers needed to hear those words.

Boiled down: a lot of writing a book isn’t. It’s researching, reading a ton, writing around it, writing “off the book,” as they say–even if there’s no book yet.

And I’m going to venture: a lot of writing a book is about living with the idea of the book for a little while.

I was writing in the spring, even as my pandemic-anxiety shifted into gear (and sometimes overdrive). I wasn’t writing the book, but I was writing short reflections here at the blog that–from a distance–I can see thematically inform my book. I was reading–a lot–and connecting with writers I admire through interviews and reviews. I participated in a couple writing workshops, and even wrote a little “poetry” (note the quotes). (If you’re really paying close attention, my little guy’s buckteeth haven’t been fixed yet. “Soon and very soon,” as the hymn goes.)

Over the summer, which is not over quite yet, I lived, albeit safely and distanced–that’s my boys’ sailing class above, each kid to their own boat. I swam and ate Lake Erie perch and Maryland blue crabs and read and laughed and sang and read some more. Finnish author Tove Jansson is my current read-around-the-book obsession, and I’m loving her The Summer Book!

Reader, my tank is full, and so is my plate.

It’s my busy season as a development writer by day, but I’m writing the book: not 1,000 words a day, but it’s coming, because I was ready to write the book.

What are you reading this week? What are you writing? Are you a write-everyday-no-matter-what-writer? I admire you! #nextlifegoals

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Laughter in the End Times

Welcome to my lake-side reading spot.

OK, sorry for the click bait-y title. The gallows humor. I neither take lightly “these uncertain times” we’re enduring, nor do I think we’re in for a siege of locusts next. But then there were murder hornets, so who knows? Those who’ve been around here a while know I’m a worrier. Uncertain times always feel dire until the next round of uncertain times comes along to take their place.

I mean, who here remembers the joys of labor, delivery, and early motherhood?

*raises both hands at once*

End Times at every turn, right? Maybe that’s a bridge too far, but hear me out…when I say that my children’s birth–my guys I love like mad now–felt like the End Times. It was the end of my childlessness, of course, the end of my marriage as one with no children. It was also the beginning of a wonder-filled new stage of life, but that was hard to see through the haze of sleeplessness. I watch the quick videos my husband captured of those times, now, and I train my eyes only on the boys–round-cheeked and elbow-dimpled–because if I glance at then-me, I think of what I wasted. Busy worrying, instead of laughing, through it.

I’ve been drawn to novels with strong themes of motherhood, this summer. (Maybe seeking some kind of fictional map to follow?)

Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance from Four Points, which I reviewed here last month, features a mother and her teenage daughter, and answers the question (among many other interesting questions): How does motherhood change when a mother takes her teenage daughter from their comfortable present to a past of painful secrets–the home the mother thought she left for good when she herself was a teenager?

Aimee Liu’s Glorious Boy is an ambitious historical novel that follows an American couple and their “beloved but mysteriously mute” four-year-old boy. Family ties are tested–and severed–as the family is evacuated during World War II from their home in the remote Adaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. At the heart is a question of motherhood: how does one best mother a child so unlike herself he seems, at times, a stranger?

Which brings me to my current read (or one of them), Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, which draws the reader into the panic-inducing, tear-filled, amorphous days of mothering a young toddler, alone. Here’s a taste:

Finally we sit in the big bed and have milk which is warm in the sippy cup from this morning because I haven’t brought a carton and we have two stories Goodnight Moon and Goodnight Gorilla, trying to emphasize the goodnight aspect and the sleeping aspect, and I decide to forgo brushing teeth and then think no no no it’s too easy to fail to establish good habits and I haul her into the bathroom and poke at her with the toothbrush and she clamps her mouth shut and cries and then I lay her in the Pack ‘n Play turn on the sound machine say “I love you I love you I love you” and close the door and listen to her scream.*

from Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State

Are your palms sweaty, like mine are, after reading that? Really, the prose is as funny as it is visceral. Though I don’t think I would have found it as funny when my boys were small, so there is such a thing as coming to a book at the right time.

As for my writing, it’s been both heartening and depressing that one of my most popular blog posts remains a post from March, which ties these times to my own Dead Mom Club in highlighting Kübler-Ross and company’s stages of grief. These times can feel like the End Times, but there is still escape, and even laughter, if we look for it.

What are you reading–and writing–this week? Are you able to laugh at all through these uncertain times? Show us whatcha got in the comments!

* Did you notice the quote from The Golden State is one long sentence? (How I love a well-done run-on!) Up for a little writing challenge? Task yourself with writing just one sentence, when you feel stuck. Learn more from “The Case for Single-Sentence Prose in the Age of Insecurity,” by Jason Thayer and featured on the Brevity blog, yesterday.

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?

Reality, layoffs, and all the rest, bite: Discover Prompts, Day 11

Photo credit: Erik Drost / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

What doesn’t bite? A surprise gift. One of my favorite surprise gifts I received this past Christmas was a book (shocker, right?): Cleveland Then and Now by Laura DeMarco, with Now photography by Karl Mondon.

The large-format book celebrates the storied history and vibrant present of my home city of Cleveland. (Granted, I grew up in Cleveland’s hinterlands, but Cleveland–and especially its Playhouse Square, where I danced with the School of the Cleveland Ballet–has my whole heart.) Having left home at 19, I now have lived longer away from Ohio (and below the Mason Dixon, God forbid) than in Ohio. Still, I consider it home.

Much of my Christmas afternoon was spent poring over the landmarks in this book. There’s Cleveland’s most beautiful building, the historic Cleveland Arcade (pictured below), where my dad worked for a time; hippie haven Hessler Road, where my mom lived when in college; Little Italy, where my parents married at Holy Rosary Church; the Cleveland Museum of Art; Playhouse Square, the largest center of performing arts between New York and Chicago; the Streamline Moderne Greyhound station, which I rolled in and out of on trips home from college in Virginia; and much more.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

The book’s author: arts and culture reporter and editor for the Plain Dealer–Cleveland’s newspaper of record–a reporter who specialized in local history and lost landmarks in the city. As many newspapers have, my hometown paper has seen its share of layoffs in recent times. Then, just last month, the news about more layoffs started coming fast and furious into my Twitter feed. Or more aptly put in this article with all the ins and outs: it was a “gutting” of a newsroom and a sure blow to journalism and journalists the Northeast Ohio community relies on. When remaining journalists were faced with losing their beats and told they would no longer be able to cover the city, a round of resignations yesterday included that of DeMarco.

Since the coronavirus reared its ugly, spiked head, journalists, writers, and bloggers have found ways of making sense of pandemic-havoc by telling the stories of our communities. While my platform is small, my community, my “beat,” during this isolation, is my family. And so I’ve been using these daily prompts to tell our stories: there’s Isolation Lent; Reviled Remote School; Close-Proximity Parenting (if my kids say to me, “OK, Boomer,” one more time, I might lose it); Extended Family Worries, and all the rest.

I’m keeping it together as best as this (ahem) Generation X-er can, which, according to DeMarco, might be pretty OK. In a piece she wrote last month, she notes that our Reality Bites generation is getting this isolation thing right: “While millennials and Gen Z kept partying and going to the beach, and boomers who didn’t want to recognize they are not so young anymore kept brunching, Gen X stood up and took action — and stayed in.” In this fun piece, she highlights the voices of several local Gen X-ers. The story brought to mind my own time in Cleveland with my best Gen-X girlfriends…dressed like we’d shopped at a Depeche Mode garage sale…drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes…watching the skaters outside Arabica on Coventry…acting all moody, sorta like isolating even when not alone.

Yeah, today’s reality–and it’s far-reaching impacts on our society–bites, and my heart goes out to all who are suffering from job loss and worse. What can we do? It is a very small thing, but today I’ll tell it like it is and hope for a better tomorrow. I hope you’ll join me.

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

A pair of hands: Discover Prompts, Day 9

Photo by Vova Krasilnikov on Pexels.com

When did I stop thinking about my hands? I used to gaze over my hands with petal-fingers at the end of a port de bras, dancing. I wrote about how my hands are my mother’s hands, long-fingered and veiny, when my grief for her was fresh. A mother, myself, I watched my hands hold infant sons–one arm a sling, one hand cupping the back of a downy-soft head. Then I made a church and steeple of my hands for the toddler boys who needed entertainment in the pew. “And here’s all the people,” I would whisper, wiggling my fingers.

Mostly now, my hands are tools to get my thoughts on the page, tools to turn a page, to scroll and swipe. But I don’t think of them much. I think of my knee that grinds, my ankles that pop. I think of my hips, which sometimes hurt, and which I baby. I am pillow-between-my-knees-as-I-sleep years old.

Maybe I’m thinking more about my hands now because I’m washing them so much. This morning, my dad called to tell me that a bit of dish-washing liquid and water works in the foaming hand-soap dispensers. Just in case. We are all worrying over hand hygiene now. Do we glove-up or not? Wash, dry, repeat. Palmolive, he said. And I thought of those old commercials. “Soft on hands.” Palmolive was my mother’s dish-washing liquid.

Remember the George-as-a-hand-model episode of Seinfeld?

What’s the sound of one hand clapping? That’s from a Zen koan or philosophical riddle and is also a line from one of Van Morrison’s songs I like to sing. I neither chop wood nor carry water with my hands, but maybe I should.

This morning, over English muffins, my boys and I prayed a special one for Holy Thursday. I took little notice over how my pair of hands fits so neatly together in prayer, fingers interlocked. It took a pandemic for me to stop biting my fingernails–I’ve noticed that.

Then, beginning my writing day, I flipped through poet Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which I highly recommend whether you think you like poetry or not. I came to his “ode to drinking water from my hands,” which you can read in its entirety here at poems.com. (Or just buy the book to hold in your hands.)

As Gay’s poem begins in a garden, you won’t be surprised that, today, the first day of the Triduum, I had in mind another garden, the Garden of Gesthemene. Maybe Gay did, too. And maybe this small snippet will quench your poetic thirst and make you consider your own pair of hands, as I am now.

and I drink / to the bottom of my fountain / and join him / in his work.

From “an ode to drinking water from my hands” by Ross Gay

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

Sing First, Feel Second: Discover Prompts Day 3

“I’m so happy, I could sing.” I’m saying that never these days. Sure, there have been moments during this isolation when I’ve put my fear aside long enough to engage in a little car-trip sing-a-long. It was Day 14, when I had to go out to retrieve books from my kids’ school and rescue my dry cleaning from its hold-up situation. In the car by myself, all alone, I belted out notes along with Patti LuPone in Evita (read more about how she’s entertaining her fans from her basement right now). Then I mixed it up and got a little angsty–no surprise there–with Amy Winehouse. Finally, on my way home I swung from the vocal chandelier with Sia. It was a wonderful release.

Still, I can’t bring myself to practice the choral pieces I would have sung over Holy Week and Easter. I want to. In “Open Wide” I talked about my re-upped hobby (now that my boys are old enough not to need this enforcer in the pew). I talked about joining my middling soprano voice with others’ in praise of something bigger than all of us. Now, it won’t happen–at least it won’t happen the way I thought it would.

Maybe I need to do it, first, and feel it second? Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from my creative writing program was that there is no writing muse. Not really. There is inspiration, sure. But, it’s closely followed by work, more work, a dash of intuition at times–which sometimes feels like a muse–and then more work.

Now, I’m thinking maybe I need to treat singing like I do writing. Do the work. Do the vocal exercises like I respond to writing prompts like this; blog, little by little, and don’t wait for inspiration. Make the inspiration. Make the song. I was just going to write: “be the song.” But, really, I’m not there yet.

This was was in response to Discover Prompts, Day 3: Song.

Be well–and maybe sing today! I’ll be listening out. ~Rebecca

Looking for a good weekend read? Check out my categories above for author interviews, some of my own fiction, and more. Are we socially connected? Find me on FB and @MoonRuark on Twitter

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?

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