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?

Rust Belt Girl Roundup, September ’19

Summer’s parades are over. Now what?

It might not feel like it today, when we’re supposed to top out at 95, but fall is closing in. And even though I’m more than 15 years from being in the classroom–first as a student, then as an instructor–the change of seasons still signals a renewed sense of dedication. And I’m ready.

Have I mentioned it’s submission season?

Yes, yes I have, here.

It’s also a good time to re-focus this blog. If you remember, I met a poet and a memoirist at the last writing conference I attended (click for conference tips)–both from Rust Belt places. I love nothing more than picking the brains of my fellow writers and presenting their thoughts to you, here. So, I’ll be keeping up the interviews–and the reading required to conduct thoughtful queries.

Funny interview story for you: a few years ago, I thought I’d parlay my interviewing skills for the blog–and managed to convince essayist, memoirist, and journalist, David Giffels, into talking to me here and again here.

For the first interview, I had read–and loved–every word of David’s book of essays. But, breaking one of my own rules of interviewing, I hadn’t read David widely (yet). A music journalist and Akron, Ohio, native, David also wrote the rock biography, We are Devo!, with Jade Dellinger. Akron is famous for a few things. Among them: tires, Chrissie Hynde, Lebron, and that safety cone-hatted band, Devo.

Disclaimer: I’m not from Akron. Still, I should have known but didn’t. And, so… when I had David fact-check our interview, which I’d recorded, among his local cultural spokes-heroes appeared Steve-O, the stunt performing comedian known for Jackass. Not, Devo (as it certainly reads now).

David didn’t ask that I pull the interview or even laugh at me for my mistake (at least not to me). I was mortified…but mortification can instruct (when it doesn’t kill).

Here we still are. Thanks for sticking with me.

For me, fall also means another season of literary festivals, my favorite of which–Lit Youngstown’s–will take me home to Northeast Ohio. Last year, that festival inspired my post: 3 Reasons to Connect with Your Writing Community… And I’ll be sure to cover the event again this year, when I’m not reading my own fiction, sitting on a panel of editors, and moderating a couple sessions. It’s two full days of literary conversation–and my idea of heaven.

Of course, as our fall weather turns a bit cooler and the evenings darken sooner, my twin guys start discussing Halloween costumes and plans. Last year they played a rather nondescript, skull-faced “death” and a soccer star, which sounds like a good title for a horror movie. Stay tuned.

With darker evenings comes darker reading, as my editor gig with Parhelion Literary Magazine has had me reading fiction for a themed October issue. And I’ve been so inspired! I hope you’ll stop by for your fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or photography fix. The summer issue is live now. You’ll also see what fun I’ve been having as features editor there.

Now, it’s your turn…What’s on tap for your fall? Pumpkin or literary festivals? Local wine or craft beer tent? Hike or bike? Write or read?

The Great 2018 Blog Experiment

Hot Stuff, right here at least once a week in 2018

How’s that for hyperbole? If you’ve been here a while, you’re probably guessing that by great I mean middling and by experiment I mean absolutely nothing scientific. Still, looking at the year’s blogtivities–what you liked*, what you liked less–could help us all achieve blog bliss in 2019. It could happen. But, first, some preliminary stats, because numbers are fun so long as WordPress is doing the crunching.

I published a perfectly round 100 posts in 2018 (not counting this one) to receive 9,736 views from 5,434 visitors. Thank you for being here; without you, I’m a complete narcissist. Likes: 2,515, and my favorite thing in the world: Comments: 924. (Yep, they still count if I’m the one commenting.)

Your Favorite Posts from 2018 (in descending order, based on views)

Your Least Favorite Post from 2018

The Sunshine Blogger Award: Woot (if tardy)! featured my take on 11 probing questions and my nominations of 11 blogs that are totally worth your time. (Bad post timing? Too much in your reading queue? Are we tired of the award posts? What do you think?)

OK, I’m no statistician, but I’m seeing a trend: gimme more writerly guests, you say. I’m so glad you asked! Coming up in early 2019, I will be featuring an interview with Ohio’s Poet Laureate and hopefully one with a small press publisher. Inquiring minds and all…

So, next up on the old arcade Love Meter: Uncontrollable! I can’t picture just what an uncontrollable blog looks like, but you can help me get there. The American Rust Belt is a big place with a lot of worthy lit–stories real and imagined, memoir, poetry and more. Know a Rust Belt writer with a story to tell? Let me know in the comments.

Other bloggish lessons learned in 2018

Share the work of others and you will be recognized (see above). It’s not just about garnering views, comments, and followers–the stuff of stats. It’s about being a good citizen in this writing life, wherever and whatever you write. I’ll never forget the blogger who responded to one of my very first blog posts by saying something along the lines of “blogging isn’t just writing, it’s communicating.” This is two-way street stuff. This is our blog.

Because I truly believe that, I spend a lot of time out on the WordPress Reader scoping out new blogs; I drop comments; and I share what I love. Case in point: WordPress Discover shared their 2018 roundup: A Year of Great Writing: The Most-Read Editors’ Picks of 2018, which is a great list btw, and in conclusion the editors asked for our picks. I didn’t have to think twice before hyping in the comments Ella Ames’ blog Not Enough Middle Fingers (and not just for the name). I was thrilled to maybe send a few bloggers Ella’s way for funny, poignant, deep, and daring writing plus her homegrown illustrations. Know what happened next? My comment drew visitors–and even a few new followers–to my site. (Welcome!) So, let’s all spread the blog love in 2019.

Will next year be the year my writing hits Uncontrollable on the Love Meter? I don’t know. But, together, we can make connections that count for a lot.

All the best to you and yours for a safe, happy, and healthy New Year!

~Rebecca

*Thanks to K.M. Allan and her 2018 Blog Roundup for this post idea

Wanna join me elsewhere on the interwebs? Here’s me at FB and on Twitter @MoonRuark

Finding Fantasy…

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Author Lesley Nneka Arimah reads from her debut story collection, What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, at Lit Youngstown’s 2018 fall literary festival. The reading was held in the stone sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church. (Photo credit: Courtney Kensinger)

in literature, of course.

Ahem.

So, I don’t know…maybe fantastical literature fell under the heading of “books and games to be avoided”–along with Dungeons & Dragons–in the C.C.D. program directed at us Catholic middle school kids. Or maybe it was my mom, for whom a talking spider and talking mouse, in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, respectively, were fantastical enough.

Whatever…it took me a long while to appreciate fantasy, or magical realism, as the genre is called among the literary fiction set.

It wasn’t until I had my kids that I began to really like fantasy–because those stories were the ones that kept my restless elementary-age boys rapt at bedtime, that kept them from becoming distracted enough by their bodies to turn to wrestling each other, thereby gaining a second wind that would keep them–and me–up past my bedtime.

The Chronicles of Narnia served as our gateway children’s fantasy. Lately, Susan Cooper stories featuring ghosts are our typical m.o. And on their nightstand at the moment: Endling #1: The Last by Katherine Applegate. Myth and mystery… The maybe-end of a rare species of dog-like creatures… A wobbyk named Tobble. (Hello, alliteration!) Really, I enjoy the characters and language as much as my kids do; but what I really love about the middle-grade fantasy I’m now exposed to…

The world-building.

Of course, as a fiction writer, I’ve been building worlds for a long time–even if they look and act like our world. But I’d never called it that. I constructed settings for scenes, putting a character in a concrete time and place. However, because those places were  recognizable, I didn’t give this process enough attention. It was scene-dressing.

That’s changed.

At Lit Youngstown’s fall literary festival, author Lesley Nneka Arimah read a few stories from her debut short story collection, titled What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky: Stories. Arimah’s gift with language–she crafts  sentences that are graceful and slyly, darkly witty at the same time–and her knack at exposing the tender underbellies of familial relationships are enough to make for truly memorable tales.

For me, what sets her fiction apart is the use of fantasy. She builds worlds we know–the stories are set in the U.S. and Nigeria. (Arimah was raised in the U.K. and Nigeria and moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager.) But these worlds are slightly tilted, set off kilter through the introduction of myth or fable or superstition.

Being born under the wrong star, as the main character was in the story, “Glory,” is much more than a young woman having a run of bad luck. Still, the main character operates in a place we can recognize, a Minneapolis call center where she listens to an endless litany of foreclosure complaints from distraught homeowners. Here we have familiar, realistic world-building. Likewise, in many of the stories in this collection, the “magical” in the realism isn’t in the setting.

Not so in the stunning titular story. In “What it Means…,” Arimah creates a world of the future, a time riven by natural disasters and wars between the classes. The solution this society has devised to create order: a mathematical formula to fix people, even those who have suffered tremendous losses, by allowing some specialists to devour others’ grief.*

“When things began to fall apart [Chinua Achebe nod?], the world cracked open…into the vacuum stepped…[a mathematician] who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe was infinite, and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension humanity had no end was exactly what the world needed.”

Then, the formula faltered…and I’ll let you read the rest for yourself.

At her literary festival reading, Arimah spoke about her literary influences. She talked about the trips she took to the library as a kid and the reading she did: across all book types and genres–and absolutely voraciously.

So, here’s to fantasy, even in the uber-realistic Rust Belt. (I am currently reading Stephen Markley’s novel, Ohio; do story elements count as fantastical if they’re drug-induced? That’s a question for another day.) Here’s to inventive play in all the elements of story.

Thank you to Lesley Nneka Arimah for allowing me to post her picture and feature a snippet of her story. Please visit her author site for more information, and go buy What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky at your local bookstore.

Do you write fantasy or magical realism? Do you blog about it? Do you read it to your kids?

 

*As I schedule this post, my heart is heavy. Condolences to the people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where on Saturday 11 people were killed when a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Prayers for the dead and for the grieving, today and everyday…

 

 

Sport in the Art of Place

I went for the art of the place: the earthy poetry and fiction borne by writers tied to the ever-evolving American Rust Belt, which has seen its share of glories and struggles, stemming from the rise and fall of mining and heavy industry.

And, I admit, I fretted just a little bit about what to wear. Stay with me…I haven’t gone all fashion blog on you.

No surprise that among the students of creative writing, the authors, editors, publishers, and poets attending the literary conference–there were ensembles of black, a poet skirt or two, and a pair of cat face-festooned flats (for real; they were fabulous shoes).

There was also a Browns cap. Yep, those Browns. The NFL team that went win-less last year (after which the people of Cleveland held a perfect-season parade).

At the sight of that beautiful brown and orange hat at a literary festival, I knew I’d found my people.

It got me to thinking, if you Venn diagram a place (and this is as math-y as I get), how much overlap is there between the place’s art and the place’s sport? Let’s think on that a minute, while I take you with me on another trip.

Earlier this month, as the fall foliage reached its peak color, my family visited the lovely village of Cooperstown, New York.

 

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At Cooperstown’s Farmers’ Museum’s 19th-century Historic Village, a lovely way to spend an afternoon with the kids

For its small size, Cooperstown is a place with impressive arts offerings, but it is known far and wide for being the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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3 Reasons to Connect with Your Creative Community; 3 Words of Thanks; 3 Inspiring Writers

The writing life is often, necessarily, an isolated one. To create a world on paper (or screen) takes holing ourselves up, cutting ourselves off from the myriad distractions of modern life.

For our writing to matter to anyone outside our own heads, however, we must connect.

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3 good reasons to connect with your creative community:

To find readers: Not surprisingly, most of the followers of this blog are other bloggers; the readers of my short fiction are other writers. You will find readers in writers, and v.v.

To research that next WIP: Let’s not research entirely online (pleads this former college composition instructor). Speaking of research, heartfelt Kiiitos paljon (Thanks a lot!) to all the wonderful folks at the Finnish Heritage Museum and to Lasse Hiltunen, president, in particular for the wonderful tour and background information on everything Finnish! (If you ever find yourself near Fairport Harbor, Ohio, don’t miss this gem of a museum.) Lesson-learned: take your research on-site, when you can.

 

To gain inspiration: How inspiring is that library carrel? As delightful as isolation can be, even the most introverted writer needs to get “out there” once in a while.

While online writing communities and critique groups, library databases and catalogues have been invaluable to my perspective, there’s no substitute for the in-the-flesh writing community.

I’m a writer interested in exploring place, specifically the U.S. Rust Belt (more specifically, Ohio), and yet I no longer live in that place. No, the irony isn’t lost on me. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog–to connect with readers and writers and photographers in my native place.

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But virtual connection is not enough. Sometimes one has to be boots-on-the-ground there. And so, after some preparation to make the most of the conference, I drove my proverbial boots the five-and-a-half hours to attend Lit Youngstown’s 2nd Annual Literary Festival this past weekend. 3 inspiring festival highlights–not just to plug this literary festival (but do come next year, if you’re in the area; I plan to) but every and all such excuses to communally share our stories:

Dave Lucas, Ohio Poet Laureate and author of Weather: Poems, presented a piece about the mythic in poetry for an audience of fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and poets. (Poetry not your thing? I get that, and have talked about my on-again-off-again relationship with poetry. But Lucas is all about finding the poetic in the everyday; he talks about that here–from about minute 8 on).

Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of the amazing short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, read a few of her stories and graciously shared a little from her formative years. Arimah told a story about visiting the public library in summer with her sister, where they would each check out the max amount of books–50–and when finished with her tower, trade, and read her sister’s. Sure, Arimah read literature with a capital “L”, she joked; but she also read romance novels and fantasy, and continues to do so today–and her literary short fiction is all the more playful and magical because of it.

Jon Kerstetter, read from his memoir, Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier’s Story, which chronicles a life begun in poverty on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin to a life in business before Kerstetter pursued his dream of becoming a physician. When his days as an emergency doctor weren’t proving exciting enough, he volunteered for tours as an emergency military medic. After three tours in Iraq, Kerstetter returned to the U.S., injured, but this was only the start of his stateside struggles, as he suffered a stroke–leading to his reinvention as an author through the writing of his life’s story.

 

Inspiration abounded at this literary conference–and not just from the big names but from the poems and stories bravely shared by writers at all stages at open-mic and in conversation.

Me, I braved the mic to read a flash fiction piece of mine set not far from where we sat, amid the rolling hills and history of Northeastern Ohio. I also took part in a publishing panel to extol the virtues of connecting through traditional and nontraditional publishing, including sites like this blog–when we can’t connect in person.

And today I returned to my writing desk feeling inspired and connected in a meaningful way to the stories of home. Thanks a lot to all who made it happen!

Have you done the conference thing–for writing, blogging, or anything else? What are the benefits to in-the-flesh arts and literary communities?

Are you a Rust Belt author, blogger, or photographer? I’m always looking for stories to share.

 

*Photos from top down are of Youngstown, Ohio, buildings, the Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, and interior shots of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Youngtown, where the Arimah and Kerstetter readings were held.

 

 

 

 

OH

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I have to say, I felt a little bit vindicated when reading author Lauren Groff‘s latest interview with Poets & Writers magazine (her short story collection, Florida, was released earlier this year) in which she asserts: “Florida is the biggest joke of all the states. It is the punchline to every other state’s joke.”

Oh?

That statement, itself, feels like a joke to this Cleveland, Ohio native. A quick recap for the Buckeye State-uninitiated: OH is flyover country; Cleveland is the “Mistake on the Lake”; the home team Cleveland Browns’ last season went 0 and 16. (Yep, it’s a rebuilding year–again.)

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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?

 

 

 

“Watching Time”

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An island in the rust belt,
once perhaps a wayward
rhinestone jewel and now?

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Some parts have seen
better times and some
have seen bitter times,…

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…some hang around
like the ghosts of a
history of light and dark,…

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…and some don’t see time
at all, but time sees them
and watches…..closely.

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Like a rag or a bag snagged
on a stick in the river, some
parts moving, some standing still,…

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…a city that seems at
times not to know where—
or even when—it is.

 

“Watching Time” poem and images by Johnny Crabcakes at A Prayer Like Gravity

Rebecca here: thank you, thank you to Johnny Crabcakes at A Prayer Like Gravity for these fine photographs and words. Together, they provide a window into the Rust Belt city of St. Louis, always changing, ever still. Please visit A Prayer Like Gravity for much more.

I’ve said before that my lack of talent with a camera has turned out to be a blessing. Wanting to feature regional photography here at Rust Belt Girl, I’ve turned to the experts–like Johnny Crabcakes; along with my fellow Northeast Ohio native, Johnny Joo, who specializes in abandonment photography at architecturalafterlife.com; and Michelle Cole, who posts her thoughts and photography at Intensity Without Mastery and who shared with Rust Belt Girl here and here what her life is like today in Lima, Ohio.

Want more photography? Check out my handy-dandy Categories.

Are you a photographer in a Rust Belt-ish place? I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

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