An island in the rust belt,
once perhaps a wayward
rhinestone jewel and now?
Some parts have seen
better times and some
have seen bitter times,…
…some hang around
like the ghosts of a
history of light and dark,…
…and some don’t see time
at all, but time sees them
Like a rag or a bag snagged
on a stick in the river, some
parts moving, some standing still,…
…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 Masteryand who shared with Rust Belt Girlhere 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!
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
If the Rust Belt is a bastion of anything, that thing might be Catholicism. Or, maybe not–given that about 40 Catholic churches were shuttered in Cleveland, Ohio, alone over the last few decades.
As the city’s population waned and its churches closed, some of the sacred art was shipped out to existing and new churches; some wasn’t.
Thanks to a good friend and follower of Rust Belt Girl for putting me onto the story of Lou McClung. A makeup artist with his own cosmetics line housed in a former Catholic school, McClung bought the closed St. Hedwig Church (named for a beloved Polish queen) in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio, in 2011, and began restoring its statues. In an article in a 2017 issue of Catholic Digest, McClung said:
I do restoration artwork across the country and I thought it was important to remember where all of these statues came up. The art represents the immigrants and all their hard work and sacrifices that made these [now closed] parishes possible.
The artist lovingly restores the statues and researches and shares the provenance of each piece in the Museum of Divine Statues he founded. Lately, McClung’s museum has been receiving religious artwork not only from the Cleveland area but from all over the country.
Other Rust Belt locales preserving shuttered churches and their art include the Buffalo [New York] Religious Arts Center and the Jubilee Museum in Columbus, Ohio.
McClung’s restoration work for his Museum of Divine Statues is beautiful. Great pics can be found at these sites:
Too many of my conversations with my kids begin this way. But it’s true:
I sound funny here in Maryland. I am a linguistic fish out of water. My Maryland-born kids and I may speak the same language, but regionalisms and accent say a lot.
This time, my recorded voice was one half of a mock interview conducted by my son. I played the author of a book he’d read for a second grade school project. He sounded normal; I sounded every bit of my Cleveland-area upbringing.
Of course, growing up, I thought I sounded normal. Because Clevelanders “do naht hayev ayaccents.” Whether you cop to having an accent or not, they can raise spirited debate; they do in my house, where my Maryland-native husband’s “league” somehow rhymes with “pig.” Huh?
Accents seem to be having something of a heyday. Last month, a Bawlmerese–that’s Baltimore-ese–video went viral; in it, innocent words like “water,” “Tuesday,” and “ambulance” are murdered to become “wooder,” “Toosdee,” and “amblance.”
Back in my native land, Cleveland’s Belt Publishing has just published How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClelland, who says:
Accents are part of our regional identity. And there is a feeling that these distinct accents aren’t as distinctive as they used to be.
In addition to regionalisms (like “pop” instead of “soda”), accents are a way to represent one’s native place. I do this with not a bit of shame! My “plaza”–hold your nose and you’ll get the a-sound right–is my son’s “plahza”; my “pajamas” is his “pajahmas.”
In this article, McClelland explains that the Cleveland accent is the Inland North accent, “marked by a raised ‘a’ that makes ‘cat’ sound like ‘cayat,’ a fronted ‘o’ that makes ‘box’ sound like ‘bahx.'”
What does all this mean for us writers?
Accent can be portrayed in our writing, and it can work well if done with a deft hand. In my current WIP, I’m writing characters who have an Italian accent, which often drops the “h” sound and rolls or taps the “r” sound–there’s a real musicality there. Not easy to write, but worth it to try.
Top 3. Top 10. Top 100. We attach ourselves to the superlative and feel tops–if only for a moment. And that almighty numeral: even an English major gets to feel like a statistician.
So, without further ado…
A Rust Belt Girl Top 3 (according to you)
with related recommended viewing for the new year:
Number 3: A blog is born, my first-ever post, covered my rationale for starting this blog. (Among my reasons: an online search for “female and Rust Belt” turned up rust-colored ladies’ belts for sale by JCPenny.) For those of you who made it to post two, thank you!
“On the fifth day of Christmas, my true self gave to me…one healthy kick in the pants.”
Is that right? Are we already on the fifth day? I’m still languishing in a sugar cookie stupor. Still digging out from leftover potatoes au gratin. Still trying to convince my family of the legitimacy of stale crackers and cheese rinds as a basic food group.
Sure, I will disconnect the sugar IV, menu plan, and get back to the proper care and feeding of my brood. I might even exercise. I will resolve! But it’ll probably be next month–which is next year.
In the meandering meantime, I will look back on the 2017 fun we’ve had here at Rust Belt Girl, you and me, thanks to inspiration from my native Rust Belt and its storytellers keeping it real.
Sing along to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” if you like.
In my first month of blogging, my Rust Belt gave to me
a blog borne from necessity (I didn’t say the cadence would be right)
Banner day: I’m responding for the first time to the Daily Prompt. Today’s is “snippet.”
So, there you go. Nope, not even a snippet of nudity.
What follows is a snippet of a short story of mine, my first published short story, which appeared in Carve Magazine many moons ago. (So very early aughts–even the second-person point of view.)
It’s funny to look back on a story I wrote while I was still in graduate school, before marriage, before kids, before the first germ of yearning to indicate I might want kids (and the responsibilities that include, often, sleeping clothed and ready as an EMT for the next cry or summons from your progeny).
The protagonist in this story–she is no heroine–is in a stage of life I didn’t know when writing this piece. (I’ve discussed before my penchant for writerly distance.) She has been married; she is the mother of a pre-teen named Cheryl; she has seen her body and spirit morph to become “mother.”
Until, one day, she arrives home to find that her daughter is gone.
And so, a snippet from “Sleeping Naked” by Rebecca Moon Ruark:
You never thought to make a deal that required her to be in the house by eleven, to be home from her friend Julie’s or your sister Judy’s place down the street. You’re surprised she’s not there. She’s always in the living room, six inches away from the television screen, which casts a blue hue onto her face, when you pull into the drive around ten-thirty after your shift at Lubrizol. Tonight you stopped at the Claridon Tavern before returning to your two-bedroom split-level in the allotments. You had two glasses of Chardonnay, and after, you left your old rusted-out Mustang parked on the street before walking the five blocks home. You were smart not to take any chances and drive it, you think, as you rest your head on the doorjamb. Ever since you dumped the town’s deputy officer, Steve, he’s been eager to land you in the holding cell for something, anything. Read more
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.
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.
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.
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?
For my next two posts here at Rust Belt Girl, I am honored to present Michelle Cole, a fellow Ohio native, who blogs at Intensity Without Mastery. I first stumbled upon Michelle’s photographs of the city where she lives: Lima, Ohio. I have posted before about abandonment photography, or “ruin porn,” as leaving me cold. Michelle’s photography, on the other hand, struck me with its depth of feeling, and I knew I had to learn more about the woman behind the lens. She has agreed to guest post here at my blog, and I’m so grateful.
As Michelle will tell, life in Lima—like in many Rust Belt places—has seen its share of hard times: leaving and loss. There are also sweet spots.
Between her photographs and candid backstory, Intensity Without Mastery moves me with its intense truthfulness:
My life was a mess of attrition and despair until the Recession. As the economy crumbled, I got better, and I’m uncertain why. … In this blog, I explore my sometimes incomplete recovery from mental illness. While I am candid about this aspect of my health, I also explore a hodgepodge of interests, such as photography …
Michelle describes for Rust Belt Girl life in Lima, Ohio:
Lima is situated near the midpoint between Detroit, Michigan, and Cincinnati, Ohio [cities along the north and south edges of America’s post-industrial heartland]. My family has deep roots in the Lima area, but I did not move here until I was nine years old, in 1981. I did spend a total of five years outside Lima in my late teens and twenties, pursuing my education, first, and starting a family, second. By the way, both of these ventures were failures in a conventional sense. I didn’t get a degree, and I became a single parent, which begins in heartbreak unless that’s the outcome intended from the start. I didn’t truly feel at home in Lima until I had failed to create the sort of life I envisioned for myself when I was young. I think that sentiment is key to describing what Lima is like.
The longer I live in Lima, the more I get the sense that this city is full of people who once wished they had landed somewhere else more replete with wealth and growth, somewhere the countryside is perpetually bulldozed to make way for more homes, stores, and schools. Reality eventually tempers these dreams for those who don’t have the skills or wealth to move away.
There’s a lot of healthy cynicism in those who inhabit the “post-fantasy” world of surviving in Lima. I found a perfect portrayal of it in a now-old article from The Onion (which, by the way, started in the bleeding edge of the Rust Belt: Madison, Wisconsin) called “Coca-Cola Introduces New 30-Liter Size.” This little satire is a clever critique of the conventional American urge toward that which is big, bright, and new.
It is necessary to reject those sort of values to be happy here.
The city of Lima has lots of reminders of its past glory days, from abandoned homes to empty or underused factories on the outskirts of town. Nowhere is this more evident than our downtown area. Where once finely dressed shoppers and business people trod the streets, now there are people who were broken and couldn’t quite be put back together. That’s another reason I feel at home in Lima.
I am one of those broken people, and when I am feeling well, I am proud of all I do. When I am depressed, I feel a bit resentful of rising to the occasion despite having some disabilities. I am hearing impaired. I have arthritis and spinal stenosis, along with a long history of clinical depression that’s been treated with varying degrees of success. This situation is not rare in people who’ve stayed in Rust Belt towns like Lima that are long past their prime. I encounter so many people who are trying to get by despite their medical problems. It’s so common that at times qualifying for disability benefits is like crossing a finish line, a mission accomplished instead of a surrender.
I’d be remiss not to mention that there is an enduring vitality to Lima despite its long-term decline in wealth and population. There’s a longstanding effort to revitalize the city and improve our local schools. We have a local symphony and community colleges.
There’s also the treasure I see in the fundamental dignity of all people as they go about the business of living, whether rich or poor, old or young.
No matter how cynical or depressed I feel at times, I see a beauty and notice innate intelligence and wit in every person I encounter. When I drive through the city of Lima or walk some of its streets with my camera in hand, I often think of the following lines from Walt Whitman from “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass:
“There was never more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Apple may have their hot new Roman numeral-named phone. But I’ve got “C.”
That’s right, I hit 100 followers! A lot to some bloggers; a pittance to others; a gracious plenty to me.
Thanks for letting me stretch my reading, reviewing, and writing skills–and for witnessing my bumbling and stumbling into the blogosphere, as I try to plant my Rust Belt Girl flag. I know time is scarce and there are oh so many blogs. I appreciate every single one of you who tunes in!
A few more numbers of note since my blog was born on May 16, 2017:
1,628 views by 793 visitors from 37 countries around the globe
What’s next? More, more, more. And new stuff, too. I’m currently smack dab in the middle of a short story/flash fiction submission frenzy; the more I get published, the more I can sample here (fingers and toes crossed).
I’m also interested in more collaboration with my fellow bloggers: photographers, authors, reviewers—from any and everywhere. Contact me if you’re up for it!
As always, I’m doing the Rust Belt Girl thing on Facebook, too. Find me—and self-deprecating Cleveland jokes—here.