American Dreaming

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Another American bird, the osprey. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

Lately, I’ve been American Dream-ing. My historical novel-in-progress interrogates the meaning of this term so overused as to be often scoffed at now, and questions what it means to be an American at peace, and at war on the Homefront. My short stories ask whether there is an American Dream to be found anymore in U.S. places defined by rust, and loss of industry, jobs, and people. Being a pessimistically optimistic Midwesterner by birth, I must say, um, yep.

Then there’s my own little dream, something like a lowercase american dream, not at all dire, to write: to dream on paper, I guess.

Recently, I ran across an interview with Crooked River Burning author and Ohio native Mark Winegardner, in which he talked about his start in writing as a journalist. The idea of being a “creative” writer was foreign and impractical, not done in his family and town–until, of course, he did it. Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood author and Pennsylvania native Paul Hertneky said much the same thing. Practical doesn’t trade in dreams.

My (late) mom, a child of the 50s and early 60s (when one could put a finger on just what was meant by “American Dream”), was lucky enough to attend college–if unlucky enough to do so when the prevailing idea was to send a girl to college to land a husband. Still, her love of art and literature stuck (as did the husband), and, of course, it grew in me. I guess I’m propagating dreams through the generations here, tending and growing them. Sounds kinda like gardening, which she would have liked. Really, I’d rather just have her back.

Maybe I’m feeling melancholy with remembrance because it’s Memorial Day weekend here in America, a time of remembering dreams secured and dreams dashed. I know who this day is really for and will send up a prayer for them.

I know I shouldn’t take for granted the freedoms we have–freedom to feel melancholy, to trade in the impractical, to dream on paper. I sometimes imagine living in a place where hitting “Publish” is truly terrifying, not trivially terrifying.

Luck has followed me to my own little spot in America, where my complaints are few.

Oh OK, here’s one, since you didn’t ask: these springtime days I am awakened from my real dreaming just around 5:40am by the loud, screeching calls of our favorite local raptors, the osprey, or fish hawk. First world problem, I know. They are beautiful and majestic, I have to groggily remind myself, like another American bird we know. And so I try to fall back to sleep and weave the call into my dreams for when I turn to writing it all down at a suitable hour.

So, while my characters are parsing “American Dream” so am I, in the America of our past, present, and future. Whether you are American or not, I’d love to know how you define the term.

I’m guessing there are as many different definitions as there are those to do the dreaming. The term is interrogated in a recent feature article (with fantastic b&w photography) on Bloomberg.com: “Why Do Americans Stay When Their Town Has No Future?” The gist of the piece: “Family and community are the only things left in Adams County, Ohio, as the coal-fired power plants abandon ship and the government shrugs.” Best quote:

“‘The American dream is kind of to stay close to your family, do well, and let your kids grow up around your parents,’ he says. It was a striking comment: Not that long ago, the American dream more often meant something quite different, about achieving mobility—about moving up, even if that meant moving out.”

What’s yours?

 

 

 

The power of a shared place: revisiting my conversation with Rust Belt Boy author, Paul Hertneky

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Bridging the gap: a Pittsburgh bridge. Image courtesy of pixabay.com

Place is powerful.

This should come as no surprise to you that I feel this way. There’s power in a place’s sights, sounds, and struggles. We are shaped by our native places. We share a kinship with people who stomped the same stomping grounds of childhood. (Don’t believe me? I will immediately become besties with anyone, the world over, wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey.)

What better time to muse about our native places than Father’s Day? (OK, maybe Mother’s Day, but I’m biased.) As we in the U.S. approach the holiday with trepidation–how many gas grills can one man need?–I suggest another kind of gift for the father or father figure in your life (no, I don’t get a cut here):

I was thrilled to come across Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood.
And I was even more thrilled that the author, Paul Hertneky, agreed to talk to me about his native place (just a couple hours east of mine) outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For those who missed it, or who would like to revisit it, here it is, my…

Author Q&A with Paul Hertneky of RUST BELT BOY: Stories of an American Childhood

Author Q&A with Paul Hertneky of RUST BELT BOY: Stories of an American Childhood

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Here at Rust Belt Girl, I’m thrilled to connect with other writers who explore America’s post-industrial heartland, the Rust Belt, and find that its rich history is still being discovered. Paul Hertneky and I share no relation except for a love of these hardscrabble places and for representing the voices of these places truthfully. For more than twenty-six years, Paul Hertneky has written stories, essays, and scripts for the Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, NBC News, and many more outlets. Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood is his memoir.

“Rust Belt Boy brings to life in loving, lyric detail an essential but over-looked portrait of America’s blue collar heart,” writes National Book Award Finalist, Sy Montgomery. [It] illuminates moments that change our lives and the small recurrences that shape our decisions. In a millworker’s milieu—seldom seen by outsiders, filled with soot, solvents, and sharp edges—we encounter the work ethic of immigrants, then as now. These pages explore the push-and-pull of family and a hometown, the gravity—nearby or at a distance—that keeps us in orbit around our roots. (Book jacket copy)

Paul—Rust Belt Boy is an exploration of your roots, your personal history and the history of your hometown of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. In the writing of this memoir, what was the most surprising thing you learned about your native place?

That honor goes to the Harmonists. By most people’s reckoning [the Christian separatist society—a celibate “utopia”—founded in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s] was the most financially successful community of the time, probably anywhere. To have three stanzas devoted to the society in Lord Byron’s Don Juan; to be a subject of discussion between Marx and Engels; to have more money at the time under the bed of the founder than in the U.S. treasury. What a force these people were. How we ignored it! That might be the biggest surprise: the fact that we were not entirely cognizant of where we were.

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Image of Old Economy Village (the Harmonist Society’s historic settlement) courtesy of ambridgeconnection.com

The question is: does our writing in some way put people in touch with their past? That’s the role we can play. That was maybe most surprising. This place was far more pivotal in American history than we knew. It points out how little attention we paid to the past—that distance between the immigrant experience of the here and now and the heritage of where we were.

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