Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Sue Monk Kidd writes in When the Heart Waits that we must wait and not push life ahead so we can allow ourselves to be transformed while God enters into our waiting. We often push forward and strive and we’re not sure why, exactly. For me it’s towards operating a B&B or a retreat house, and embracing a writing career. But what if I embrace where I’m at? What if I do nothing but what I need to do and let life unfold moment by moment? Maybe I won’t do a fall Word Lovers retreat next year, maybe something else will present itself. What if I don’t write the non-fiction articles but write only the spiritual or the stories of life? What if I let my God connection and not my wallet take me where I need to go?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some Things Never Leave Us, and Sarah Willis Knows It

Sarah Willis’s book Some Things That Stay ( is a beautifully-written book. In her meandering way, Willis received a BFA in Theater from Case Western Resere University, a Certificate in Photography from the Cooper School of Art, and took graduate classes in creative writing at Cleveland State University. Her stories have been published in many magazines (and one was nominated for the Pushcart Prize), and she has taught creative writing classes and spoken in a number of venues.

Some Things That Stay, published in 2000, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Stephen Crane Award as well as the Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature and was made into a movie. She also has written The Rehearsal (2001), A Good Distance (2004), and The Sound of Us (2005). She is writing her fifth novel.

Some Things That Stay is a coming-of-age novel set in 1954. The protagonist is 15-year-old Tamara Anderson, whose father is a landscape painter and takes the family to a different location each year so he can paint new places. The family of five—Dad, Mom, Tamara, Robert, and Megan—can only take what will fit in their rounded-top trailer. The children are brought up in an environment where nakedness is acceptable, sex is explained at an early age, and religion is shunned with passion.

Willis conjures up life on a 1950s farm so we feel we are there, like when she writes “the cow feels like the dog, sort of bristly yet soft. She’s warm to the touch, and her skin moves against her body as if it’s not connected to the muscles in the same way ours is. She smells like nothing I ever smelled before, which is what I presume is the smell of cow, which is hard to separate from the smell of manure, which is everywhere.” The writing is in-the-moment and precise.

She chooses to tell the story entirely from Tamara’s point of view in the present moment, but I don’t find it awkward—it’s personal and intimate and is what draws me into the book and causes me to like and understand Tamara. I can see why she pretends she recently lived in Austria, it seems like something Tamara would do.

Critics would call it a quiet book, because not much happens in this book that takes place over a late spring and summer, except that Tamara has her first sexual experiences, Dad loses it when he fears his wife will die, Dad leaves them with neighbors to go to New York for a gallery opening, the kids start going to church, Mom tries to recover from tuberculosis, and we don’t know the outcome of that as the family makes yet another move at the end of the book to be near the sanitarium where she’s being treated. The book is about inner growth.

Willis’ descriptions of the Stuart’s art and his process are pretty exact and believable, and those parts are somewhat autobiographical, but Willis claims the autobiographical elements in the book are the family’s going to Chautauqua every summer (like the fireflies in jelly jars, who doesn’t have a memory like that from a time when fireflies seemed to be more prevalent). Her mother is nothing like Liz but her father may be a bit like Stuart, and I think Tamara may be a lot like Sarah..  In an interview in IndieBound, Willis says she doesn’t write about herself, but places, like the hill in Chautauqua, are part of the stories. She said, “I want to write characters who are not me, but who are, really, partly me. I want diversity, and I want a feeling that we are all the same in the same basic way. Sometimes this is hard to believe.”

In this book, do you believe it?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Not a Nun, But at a Monastery

When I was at the Sharing Our Gifts retreat in mid-October, Ann South told me not to write about my sabbatical at Mount St. Benedictine’s Monastery until I returned home again, but I'm a journaler. I wrote:  "Sister Jean, who is about my age has long gray hair partially pulled back and wore Native American-style clothing. She showed me all the artwork along the walls and they are blessed with some religious art from South Africa, Germany, and various other parts of the world, as well as a number of bowls, vases, chalises, and other artifacts made by a Father who was given special dispensation to live with the nuns for 20 years so he could create his art, which can now be found in the Vatican and museums throughout the world."

It felt safe and comfortable in my hermitage in the woods, located 5 minutes from the monastery. I left my stuff willy nilly and went out for a walk on a gorgeous, colorful Fall day. I walked past the other two cabins, climbed over the fence by East Lake Road/Route 5, crossed the street and walked a long path down to the beach. I took a detour to walk on a footbridge across a creek and down the path some, but it was pretty muddy, so I went back the way I came to the main path. There was a boardwalk and then an area with benches at the end and no way down to the beach, but I was fine with that. I sat a while there, then walked on the bluff above the shore and found a hideout within some trees in the woods where I sat on a bench by a child’s picnic table and immediately started talking to God. We talked aloud about what my book is about, talked it all the way through, and then I asked God to be with me throughout my time here. I felt the Holy Spirit, and I wanted to cry, and I asked God what that was, that feeling of emotion taking over and making me want to cry, and He didn’t talk, He never does, he just led me to singing “Sanctuary” and “Kum Ba Yah” like a kid all the way back across Route 5 to the old road that leads to the monastery. I walked along the paths outside and in the gardens. I must have taken 20 outdoor pictures to help me remember what I was feeling when I was there.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


There was a lot of processing going on at the monastery.  I was working on my novel, but my soul was being transformed by being in a holy place and living differently.  I walked along the path to the Lake and did yoga. The Benedictines find God in everything and encourage seeking, spending time in nature, and doing important work in the world. They honor art and creativity. Coincidentally, I packed a CD called “Chant” by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, and the music is haunting and beautiful.
After reading the day’s dawn readings in Thomas Merton’s Book of Hours, it was still dark outside but I was rewarded by a starlit sky, amazing in its beauty.
Sue Monk Kidd writes about the difference between the Self that is God within us and the Self that is the Ego that we create, a false self, but a necessary self. As we grow, those selves merge. All is good. Just being alive gives us much for which we can be thankful.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


On my second day at Mount St. Benedictines, I enjoying the silence. What work it is to produce a fine novel, but that is what I am intending to do. I'm girded by God prayer, walks, and reading. I’m reading at morning, noon, evening, and night Thomas Merton’s spiritual writings in A Book of Hours. I read “Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God because God never wills such work directly. He may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly, due to our sins and to the sins of the society in which we live. In that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid. But let us not be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work, and unnatural toil.” That is what I feel in my soul, the unnatural toil.

St. Benedictine Monastery allows people to reside here while they figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. The Benedictine Sisters Prayer for Vocations reads, in part, “Bless others with the courage to accept the invitation to seek you in community through prayer and ministry. May these seekers find fulfillment for the longing in their hearts: in communal life well-lived and in loving attention to the needs of your people.” What does God require of me? Brother Thomas, who lived at the monastery here in Erie for over twenty years and had studio on E. 10th Street in Erie, created beautiful ceramic art while the Artist-in-Residence. He wrote, “I am not doing art, I am doing theology.” One hundred pieces of his art are at the monastery, but his work is also at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and The Vatican. He knew he was called to do art and he pursued it, with the blessings of the church.

The main character in my book is questioning her way of life as well. She's not me, but her spirit asks some of the same questions. The questions I ask in my book are: How do we trust in love? Is love what we need or will we always be disappointed? Is God to be trusted? What does God give us?  

Writing From the Heart

The Savvy Authors asked me to be a guest blogger on their website.  I wrote about Writing From the Heart.  Read it here: It was one of those inspired moments, a good piece of writing that I hope you'll enjoy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How Did Fitzgerald's First Novel Get Published?

The answer is that Max Perkins liked it and supported it.  No one else did at first.

This Side of Paradise didn’t go over so well with Book Group, even though it was F. Scott (named after his second cousin thrice removed Francis Scott Key) Fitzgerald. My job as facilitator was to help them see the merit of the work even though it is not the finest piece of writing Fitzgerald managed to produce. The theme of love being warped by status seeking and the absurdity of it all is shown through the shallow lives of the characters, including protagonist Amory Blaine, but the book is not just a statement on live but on society. That is why the book was well received by the critics. We cannot overlook that it was a book that told the story of the “lost generation” and the Jazz Age, a time whose name was coined by Fitzgerald himself.

Fitzgerald’s first novel has published in 1920, when he was just 23, soon after Zelda Sayre broke up with him because he didn’t have any money or promise. It was a typical coming-of-age book about a young man who started out with privilege, much coddling from his mother, an unusual education, and ended up at Princeton where they stamped him as the Princeton type. Parts of another book are imbedded in this one (the unpublished book The Romantic Egotist), and at times the author used a style that was more of a play, and poetry appears throughout the book, either written by one of the characters or by Rupert Brooke, whose line “Well this side of Paradise! . . . There’s little comfort in the wise” developed into the title of Fitzgerald’s book. The mixing of styles and brokenness between the parts of the whole were disconcerting to readers who are used to smooth transitions and editing that pulls it all together. The first part of the book, the story of the egotist, was painful to read because the main character was so full of himself.

There were other parts of the book that were strange, for lack of a better world: The main character left to serve in WWI, but we read nothing about that war, and when Amory’s mother dies, we again lose part of the story. The girls in the book—Isabelle, Clara, Rosalind (based on Zelda), and Eleanor—were well defined and we had a good sense of their characters and relationship with Amory, but they were immature girls and not ready for love relationships at all. We see the character trying to work through what love is and what it isn’t. Much of the latter half of the book was flawless, and the characters of Monsignor and Burne were particularly well drawn, as was Amory’s experience of death which he avoided on the surface and came back to haunt him. The character grows from a personality into a personage, becoming a thinking, feeling person who thinks about the fate of his soul. Earlier in the book “it was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” The message for all of us may be to live in the moment and enjoy life as it is now. I’m not sure that I like the message on love—strive to be your best and you’ll be loved, but if you don’t, you won’t be—is what I would want to think love is.

Those of us who have read about Fitzgerald’s relationship with Zelda (I read the book Zelda: A Biography Nancy Milford years ago), know the relationship between the Fitzgeralds was devastating to both Scott and Zelda. The book was Scott’s attempt to win Zelda back, and it did. The book was wildly popular. The initial printing of 3000 copies sold out in three days and the book went through twelve printings in two years and sold 49,075 copies. It was not financially successful, but did encourage Fitzgerald to go on to publish The Beautiful and the Damned, Tender is the Night, and The Great Gatsby. The Love of the Last Tycoon was published posthumously. Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Blogging works best when we respond to other people's posts and follow each other and build up a readership through getting people to see what's being written.  It also requires that we post regularly. Journalists like me have it easy--all I need to do is sift through the hubris of my personal writings and I have words to post. As for other blogs, don't be surprised if you find yours on my list of favorites. For today, check out this one:  Chuck Sambuchino's at