Powerful conversations and an essay by Melissa Ballard

A nuclear power plant near home

My mom wasn’t a hippie, though she lived on Hessler Road as a college student–a Cleveland street where hippie power still reigns. Late 60s, with my bearded dad at the wheel of their VW bug, they looked the hippie part, anyway. Enough to be stopped by a police officer, as they traveled country roads to my mom’s parents’ house in upstate New York. The checkpoint was in a little place called Woodstock. The officer tapped on the driver’s-side window. “Going to the music festival?”

“What music festival?”

Alas. My lovely parents weren’t hippies, but they weren’t content to become carbon copies of their parents, either. Starting fresh, newly-married, they moved to the country, where they would raise a few ducks, some chickens, a goat named Esmeralda, and eventually us human kids. What veggies she couldn’t grow in her lush garden, my mom got from the natural food co-op she helped to run. We had a local honey man and a pumpkin man. None of this struck us kids as any kind of resistance against the powers of 80s consumerism powered by…well, power.

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My interview with FURNISHING ETERNITY author David Giffels

David Giffels is the author of Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, published by Scribner in 2018.

“…when he enlisted his eighty-one-year-old dad to help him with the unusual project of building his own casket, [Giffels] thought of it mostly as an opportunity to sharpen his woodworking skills and to spend time together. But life, as it usually does, had other plans.” (From the book jacket copy.)

Giffels’s father, Thomas Giffels, passed away three days after this book on loss and grief was released. “The book is so much about him, and mortality, and thinking about aging parents and all these themes that were directly connected to him,” said the author, who spoke with me earlier this month.

Furnishing Eternity continues the Akron, Ohio, author’s award-winning literary career. Giffels’s previous books include The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the Rust Belt and All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, his first memoir. He teaches creative nonfiction in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program.

David–place figured majorly in your last book, The Hard Way on Purpose. How does place figure into Furnishing Eternity?

My last book was about place in a regional, communal kind of way, a place I share with a lot of people—the Rust Belt and the industrial Midwest. I think about Furnishing Eternity as being about place in a different way. It’s a much more personal book, but I identify the place of my father’s barn and workshop very directly with him. That’s where his true nature was. It’s where I communicated with him the best. The much more intimate spaces of his barn and workshop are central to this story.

In Furnishing Eternity, you experience the death of your mother and your best friend, John. I read that much in the sections about your grieving those losses began as journal entries. Can you talk about how you progressed from journal-writing to essay-writing?

This book was different, because I knew I was going to be living things as I was writing about them, which is closer to journalism than it is to memoir. So I was already doing a lot of note-taking about the process of building a casket and about spending time with my father. I was careful with my note-taking, to record things as they were happening, knowing they would be in the writing. When my mom died, unexpectedly, and John died—that note-taking became less of a literary process and more of a personal process.

The writing involved working from raw notes that were sometimes painful to read, that I took, day by day, aware that that material would be part of what I was writing for the book and aware that I was also recording my emotional life. That’s hard material to work from. It was so raw, so immediate, and so chaotic. When you grieve someone it can be a violent and unpredictable process, and writing requires stepping back and seeing the shape of things. I was trying to do that on the fly, so it took a lot of drafts and a lot of trying to distance myself. The process was different from anything I’d done as a writer. When I wrote All the Way Home, it was ten years after the events and I had settled a narrative in my head. I could see things with objective distance that made it a much different writing experience. It’s easier to regain the immediacy of something that’s in the near distant past than it is to step away from the immediacy of something ongoing.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was vital to that process; not just the process of writing—she’s writing about writing about grief—but also the process of grieving. I had avoided reading the book while I was writing Furnishing Eternity, because I didn’t want my writing to be influenced by it. But when my mom died I knew I had to read that book to help me with the process of grieving my mother. Didion was vital to my personal loss and my ability to write about it.

Do you journal much, regularly?

Not very much. Spending many years as a journalist has made me much more workman-like as a writer. I have journaled at various times, but to me, writing is getting down to work and doing it when it needs to be done. I think in banker’s hours. Once I’m working on a project, it’s all-consuming. I’m always taking notes. When you’re working on a writing project, you become a selective magnet, like all of a sudden everything in the world is being tested to see whether it’s going to be drawn to your subject. If it is, it comes flying at you and sticks. I’ll hear or see something and think, I have to write that down right away. That’s urgent journaling, I guess. Read more

Creative Inspiration: Part 2 from Intensity Without Mastery’s Michelle Cole

How did we get here? Not here at Rust Belt Girl so much as here—writing, blogging, connecting? (Anyone else have that Talking Heads song running on repeat in their minds? You’re welcome.)

For me, it was my mom who was the reader in my young life, who made it okay to “waste” an hour or a day on a good book. She was my biggest fan, even when my writing hadn’t a prayer of reaching a larger audience than my immediate family. She made me feel like a writer—and sometimes a vote of confidence from someone you love is enough to begin to believe it, yourself.

As I emerge from my Thanksgiving Day food coma, I say thanks to memories of my mom and to everyone else who makes me feel like something of a writer.

Many thanks, in particular, to Intensity Without Mastery blogger and photographer Michelle Cole for this two-part collaboration. I’ve learned so much! (Please check out Part 1, here.)

For Part 2, I wanted to see where Michelle finds her inspiration, what sparks her creativity.

Michelle—what inspires you to take photographs, especially of your Ohio city? What do you shoot with?

I must first credit my parents with impressing me with the notion that hobbies are vital to happiness. My dad kept an aquarium and made pictures of ships with strings pulled around pins painstakingly positioned on canvas or velvet (there is a name for these sort of pictures that escapes me now; its popularity rose and fell alongside macramé). My mom painted and drew. She also read an ocean of genre fiction.

My dad had a significant interest in photography in the 70s. My parents’ bathroom did double duty as a dark room for a few years. My dad’s interest in photography was mostly confined to portraits of family members and some architectural photos. One of my earliest memories involves taking the elevator to the top of what was then the tallest building in Indianapolis, probably the National Bank Building. We went to the top so Dad could take a cityscape picture from that vantage point.

Like for so many Rust Belt families, the prosperity we knew in the 70s did not last, so Dad put aside his photography habit due to cost.

Despite that our fortunes rose and fell, the example of their hobbies endured. Creative pursuits had value. Eventually, my history of major depression intersected with this notion. When digital photography became widespread, I decided to try it because I wanted to see if I could develop a skill that I knew was not a total waste of my time. My parents taught me by example that all creative expression had inherent value.

Then I was struck by the idea that photography could remind me that life was worth living, that my life itself had value. The places I saw, my city especially, were a part of that value.

As I took more pictures of the places I had seen so often, I began to feel something akin to teaching a dying language. I was capturing scenes that should not be forgotten: this is how we lived, the good, the bad, the ugly . . .

I also have an enduring interest in nature photography. I feel serenity in documenting the change of seasons.

I shoot with three different cameras, a Nikon D5200, a Canon Rebel T6, and my cell phone camera (a budget LG V8). None of my equipment is expensive or super sophisticated. There is still much I should learn about the technical points of photography. My favorite shooting combo is my Nikon D5200 with a Nikkor 55-200 mm f4-5.6 VR lens.

What moves you to provide a short essay or story around your photographs?

I wish I had the time and consistent motivation to write about the pictures in every photography post on my blog. When I look at my pictures, I see shorthand for memories that I wish others could read. I suppose that great photographs past and present tell that story with no annotation necessary.

I feel like my inclination to write an essay to accompany a picture is a function of two things: time and depression. If my depression is flaring up, my picture posts have little or no text offered, and the writing is perfunctory or clinical in tone. If the text is short but optimistic in nature, I am simply too busy with work or parenting to write much more.

The photos I take of places in my city usually tap a rich vein of memory for me because I’ve seen them so often, and I really should offer an anecdote to accompany them.

Today I took a picture of a house near the downtown area that intrigues me with its longevity.

Lima house by Michelle Cole
Lima, Ohio, house by Michelle Cole

While this home has some striking Victorian details, its greatest distinction is being the last home left standing in its area. Every other home along that street for several blocks was taken by eminent domain for the construction of a new high school and stadium. I don’t know how this house escaped this dragnet that resulted in the razing of many aging homes and row houses in the vicinity. The powers that be made the school’s lawn large beyond reason to justify demolishing a problem public housing project that had been built in the 80s. This house reminds me that the place we call home stirs feelings of ambivalence.

At heart, I feel this project was like liposuction to this town; poverty and crime can’t be erased just by demolishing buildings and planting perfect lawns where they once stood. I wish some of the other houses had been spared. The perfect lawn and angled brick of the new high school are reminders that the Lima my parents and grandparents knew cannot be resurrected. At least we have this one home left from the old era.

Michelle—thank you for giving me a window into your world. Your personal journey captured in stunning images inspires me to keep growing by creating and connecting with bloggers like you. Anything else you’d like to say?

We live in a golden era of photography. Chances are you have at least one camera within reach almost all the time. No one’s life is just like yours. No one sees all of the places you’ve seen. What you’ve seen today could be gone tomorrow. Now is the time to share those images with the world.

Lima fall foliage by Michelle Cole
Lima, Ohio, fall foliage by Michelle Cole

Thanks again to Michelle Cole at Intensity Without Mastery for reminding us to keep sharing our visions in words and images. And don’t forget to visit Michelle’s site.

Do you feel you, too, are “teaching a dying language” by resurrecting memories of the past through your writing or photography?

Please share!