Churches Omitted in Last Post

I did omit some Warrensburg churches from my last post. Here they are. I believe there’s another Church of Christ in town but I don’t know where. The one below is on Maguire, where the movie house once was. The sign for Northern Hills Baptist is a repeat in order to accompany the photo of the building–I couldn’t get an angle to capture them together. I just recalled that a Unitarian group meets in the Warrensburg Depot. That’s a beautiful building, too!

Churches used to keep their doors open twenty-four hours a day. In Tucson and during my early years in Warrensburg, I would occasionally drop by a church and just sit on a pew for a while. While I was doing graduate work at the University of Arizona, I asked one of the professors who had a doctorate in comparative religions how he chose to be Catholic when he had studied so many faiths.  He said, basically, that there was one god and individuals should choose the faith with which they were comfortable.  A Catholic church in Tucson was a favorite place—not during a service, but empty and quiet.  Maybe someone lighting a candle.  I find churches and what they’re supposed to represent very comforting.

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A Friend’s House

My husband and I went for a drive yesterday and today because the weather has been so nice, spring is here, and the future looks a little rosier than it has in a year. We enjoy looking at churches so we tried to take a photo of every church in Warrensburg. Certainly, we missed some and hope to find them another day.

In my small hometown, which had a population of about 1800, there were at least seven churches. My young friends and I were all from different denominations but we thought of differences primarily in terms of who could do what–dance, wear jeans, listen to popular music, lead the singing, have instruments. A few of us used to play King of the Mountain on the wall of the old Nazarene church, which had burned down long before. We weren’t Nazarene, but the site seemed, if not holy, precious.

Once I told my mother how much I liked churches–that even being near them made me feel good. She said, “Of course. A friend lives there.”

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Mixed Blog: End of One Pandemic Year at Home

For three months, I’ve been suffering from tendonitis, so writing of any kind has been painful and thus limited. A friend commented that Willa Cather (my most admired writer) had a similar ailment. That was interesting but not very comforting. I am no Willa Cather, and pain is pain. But my new book is out, beautiful, traveling through good promotion by University of Notre Dame Press, by word of mouth, a few wonderful reviews, and readings (see I wish it well and will love it into the future as best I can.

Given the tendonitis, I’ve made only brief and limited attempts at playing. I can now chord the piano to accompany singing some songs or backing up (slow versions of) standard hoedowns. This last week my husband and I managed 30 minutes on the dulcimer.  We played “Amazing Grace,” “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” “Bach’s Minuet,” “Cotton Eyed Joe,” “Cajun Waltz,” and a few others.  Joy!  Here’s my Sadie McSpadden, lovely girl.

It’s been a long, hard year for many people and in many ways. I’m grateful for the activities I love and can still enjoy. Looking forward to tomorrow and the day after, and after.

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A Model for Bold Writing: Adam Johnson

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The first story in Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles reminded me of the world he explores—the human situation, realistically, at its worst and at its best. I recalled specifically his novel The Orphan Master’s Son in which the horrors of North Korea’s totalitarian society were closely depicted. As a reader, I wanted to escape that regime, find happy endings for everyone, but stayed because of the truth being presented and because of a core thread, a love of and respect for humans and humanity.  That love and respect pervades also Fortune Smiles. The collection would be a good study for writers who want to examine but not exploit sensitive and even ugly situations.

Johnson’s characters are in extreme circumstances, some of them off-putting, but certainly real: a man facing and dealing with the complete paralysis of his young wife;  a man taking care of a young boy in the aftermath of the Katrina and Rita hurricanes in New Orleans; a woman dying of cancer in the midst of her young family; a man being introduced, by his victim, to his own part in the holocaust; a pedophile fighting his nature and fighting against those who share it; defectors who love their country. All these extremes are believable and understandable because multiple, specific details establish Johnson’s authority and his world’s reality: complex settings of intimate or foreign nature, modern technology in myriad uses, medicine, communication, punishment, crime.

Throughout, there’s little doubt what to admire, what at least to understand, what to fight and deplore. Even the most callous, seemingly unredeemable character, has a moment when, though the reader might not soften judgment a character does—not forgiving, but showing compassion to the compassionless.  It is the high road we have learned to see better and appreciate in our time. We also see the circuitous, evasive reasoning that allows a person to hide from self and others.

In Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, we have the family defined as the family of man. It’s overtly stated in one story and implied by the collection. The problems rampant in our own culture and in the world are being suffered by humans—those we like and those we don’t; they’re part of our community.

Johnson’s stories aren’t for everyone.  I wouldn’t recommend them to many of my reading friends who aren’t prepared to explore sad situations.  Sometimes we want to be entertained, to have our hearts lifted, to laugh, and go into the world with a good feeling.  There are many, many works that provide that vital warmth.  But Johnson’s work looks deeply at suffering and how the spirit deals with it, rises above it, and that is also hopeful and warm.  He has a great moral strength and reading his work bolsters that while also educating and increasing empathy in hard-to-understand situations, something our divided country needs more than ever. 

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Song About Missouri

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Writing in the Ocean: Write, Read, Write

We learn something, good or bad, from every book we read—maybe what not to do.  More often, there’s something to gain.  My reading includes German comic books about  Max and Brett, German folk tales—a dual language reader, because my German isn’t strong enough to read without help–some Spanish language novels, a slow go, too, though Spanish is more familiar to me, my having lived in Tucson.  I also read about home remedies, poisons, superstitions, Biblical sources (e.g.,Harold Bloom’s the Book of J), the history of witchcraft, angels,  animals, great tragedies, heroism.  If I’m interested in a subject, I read about it. Toads. Salamanders.

But my consistent reading for pleasure and for learning is literature, stories and novels and essays by the best prose writers—not only the critically acclaimed but also those I stumble upon.  Thus, it’s difficult for me to say at any given moment who is the best writer, who has influenced my writing. That depends on the genre, era, and my mood. I couldn’t complete a list if I had to begin with the most ancient text and come forward.  Always among relatively recent favorites are  Chekhov, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Porter,  Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, and on and on. Right now I’m tense because of the hundreds of names I’m skipping. Per Petersen.

Because there are so many writers whose skills are greater than mine can ever be and because my experience personally is so limited—raised in a small town, low income,  no travel until recent years—I am in awe of the field I work in—writing, in awe of what’s gone before and what’s current. That awareness can sometimes stop me.  I sometimes put my writing away, or criticize it to the trash bin, or submit it without adequate introduction—a nice letter from a writer who loves words. My words and my confidence become heavy, I move with stones.

It’s possible that my writing, anyone’s writing, has a purpose, meets a need, whether or not the writing contributes to the grand art itself.  Some people truly do write only for themselves, to satisfy a need for expression, to discover thoughts and patterns—many possible, good reasons.  Sometimes we find journals and diaries that reveal a character and time and maybe a talent that we wish had been recognized earlier. Those are precious finds.  They point to a truth about writing—you can’t be sure what effect your writing will have on the world.  If you want to ensure that it’s never read, and serves only your own needs, then possibly you should burn whatever you’ve written.  Heirs may print and distribute it or give it to a local historical society for posterity.

I’ve written earlier posts about how certain texts have changed my life.  One has some bearing on how I feel about being so small in the ocean of writers.  It was Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. The novel is about a man wrongly imprisoned and tortured for years. I was moved by how fiercely the character defended his self-identify which was in effect his freedom.  As long as he didn’t capitulate and confess to what was not true about him, he was free.  A friend advised me that that concept had been presented many times, in greater works and stronger ways. Probably true. There’s always something better depending on what pool of knowledge surrounds you. But Malamud’s particular example of freedom came at the right time for me to appreciate it, maybe because it was the strongest element of the work, maybe because the nature of the torture was more horrific to me, or because of a myriad other reasons.  A book can affect a reader in powerful ways because the reader is ready for the message.  None of us can be certain of the effect our manuscripts may have on others.  We can hope and strive toward a worthy goal—to have a good message, to offer understanding of the human situation, or hope in times of despair, or just a moment of pleasure, an instant of beauty. We might even dream, maybe subconsciously, of producing a masterpiece someday.  Regardless our work will have some effect, possibly an important one, even if only to a small audience, maybe a single person.  

Most recently I have been caught and stilled by the work of Annie Proulx, specifically Barkskins. The breadth and depth and beauty of the novel astonishes me. With historical accuracy and fictional power she’s covering the settling of Canada over generations, the great wealth offered by the country and native people and the gradual diminishing of both.  She unfolds a panorama, vivid characters and scenes, cultures, customs, biases, wars, flora, fauna, illnesses, medicines, and in beautiful, clear, immediate prose. One needn’t grieve at the loss of a character, because he will surface again in the story of his sons or his sister or his enemy.  Great achievements and great losses. Great writing.  I love her and her talent.

And so it goes.  I read, I write. I immerse myself in prose and ideas that enrich my world.  Maybe I get stronger from resting a while and then I plunge on.

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Spring Flight Poets

The writers and editors are aware that their art is not yet burnished to its ultimate perfection; they admit the presence of flaws in some facets of their handiwork; but they have had pleasure in writing and editing the poems, and they hope their friends will find pleasure in reading them.

This statement ends the preface to the first issue of Spring Flight, creative writing by members of the English Club of Central Missouri State Teachers College (now UCM), Warrensburg, Missouri in 1939. The contents page appears below. Copies of the first issue are probably scarce, but my copy is still in good shape. I’ll tag some or all of the names so relatives have a chance of finding them. I didn’t know any of the people though I recognize a name or two, from local buildings. The publication later became Cemost, then Pleiades.

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Kingsolver’s Ruse

This is the nest of a tower spider, or a turret spider, a species of Tarantula.  You can see the spider herself lurking below the surface. While the turret spiders I’ve managed to find in a brief research are specific to California, a few turret spiders appear as tiny characters—part of setting, symbol, theme—in Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, set in Vineland, New Jersey. Since Kingsolver is a biologist, one of the great pleasures her works offer is a rich, detailed environment—the natural world of humans, plants, and animals.  This one creature drew my attention because it was totally new to me, captivating both in reality and in the way it plays in Unsheltered. This is not an analysis of the work—I’m interested in the spider itself and in the various directions its presence leads—the promising literary territory.

The turret spiders in Unsheltered have been collected by Mary Treat, a self-trained naturalist, and correspondent with Darwin (based on the real Mary Treat).  She has collected ten or more, carefully digging up each nest as she finds it in her garden and relocating it in a glass candy jar.  Her neighbor, Thatcher, discovers the little habitats in her parlor, distributed on tables and her desk, amid potted plants: “Each jar was half filled with soil and planted with a miniature garden of mosses, wildflowers, and ferns. The breath of these small green worlds moistened the inner curve of the jars’ glass shoulders.” Mary explains that the “ferns and flowers in those candy jars are a ruse . . . so nervous lady friends can admire the little gardens without being shocked.”  She says the spiders are better pets than dogs, and she has one that will eat out of her hand.  She admires them greatly, is fond of them. 

So, now, am I.

A turret spider spends most of its life atop its tower or lurking just beneath the rim, springing attacks on edible passersby for survival.  The female may live for sixteen years. The males live eight or nine, at the end of which span they feel the call to mate, and look for a female.  They don’t live past that, so perhaps the female kills them.  Mary Treat tells Thatcher that if she “offer[s] them husbands, it doesn’t end well.”  Spiderlings build nests close by, so little turrets abound.

Mary Treat’s parlor is a world within a world.  The glass jars are throughout the room, on tables, among plants and among book, mingling research and social life, study of habitats within a habitat. That’s how Mary lives her life.  They’re disguised for the comfort of her lady friends, and she herself is disguised for them—in the parlor.  She is an “investigator,” a woman Thatcher first sees lying prone on the ground spying on “ants and spiders.” She stays in her tower, with her books, yet the world comes to her.  Thatcher does, himself a botanist, and a Darwinian, though he’s not allowed to teach Darwin.  The household pets from next door, Scylla and Charybdis, spend time at Mary Treat’s, under her desk, because she feeds them.  Mary is married, but her husband is not there.  He may have taken off with a different kind of woman, speculation has it, but he may just be more comfortable away from home, and Mary is apparently, at home with him gone. Mary is much like the female turret spider, ensconced in a tower, her sustenance research.

It’s always a pleasure to read a book by an author who knows a subject deeply  and weaves that knowledge  into the story so that while following plot, and character, and perhaps loving the language itself, you’re acquiring wonderful, unbefore known information.  The Barbara Kingsolver books I’ve read have been like that.  In addition to discovering Mary Treat and turret spiders, Unsheltered led me through the losing of a home—a house, an area—in different eras, in different generations, and from different points of view, among them a husband not quite loved enough and a woman who loves the home she inherited. It’s a complex work, wonderfully intricate, and ultimately about loss of habitat in our larger natural world. When the story has been absorbed, one has experienced the alteration of a site in one place and in different hearts.  I read Unsheltered over a year ago and am still thinking about it. The impact of fiction ever astounds me.

Source: Kingsolver, Barbara. Unsheltered. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

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Thoughts on Reading: Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s work is so unlike any fiction I read, or at least have read in recent years, that I feel I’m out of my league, and yet totally involved–the science is made understandable, believable, and positive.  I feel hopeful about the human condition.  It is reading simultaneously philosophy and science and fiction.  In Exhalation a robot dismantles itself to peer at its brain. It seems less a robot than a sentient being of another type, one with desires and fears and curiosity like my own, or as I hope mine is.  He peers at his brain to understand, among other functions, how memory works, and discovers how the universe contributes to him and how he and all others contribute back.  And he writes of this by dismantling himself—a true risking of his own being. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a man designs a time travel mechanism, a standing hoop that contains within its depth a time period of seconds or years or centuries. It’s a delay, so a travelers can visit themselves in the past or the future and carry on conversations, and even act in concert toward a goal. The characters are engaging, with bodies, and hopes and dreams, like in any fiction.  At the end of each story I am again hopeful about our nature and the nature of the world, even the afterworld, if there is one. His work deals with my loftiest wonderings, free will, memory, time, reality,  and explains a possibility that is good. What the characters learn is beneficial to self and to others.  The work of a mind and heart like Ted Chiang’s is one to attend to.


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Thoughts on Voice and Style

When I think of an author’s voice, I think of far more than just the style of a particular story or even of a group of writings. I think of the philosophy conveyed by that voice, maybe from one piece or maybe from a lifetime body of work. Take Faulkner, my favorite author, and the subject author of my graduate studies. The dominant voice I hear is a highly compassionate, intelligent, honest one, often laced with humor. The voice instills trust and admiration and a little caution, because honesty isn’t always easy to hear, even if it’s spoken with compassion.

William Gass once said of Faulkner that he couldn’t write of anything trivial because to him there wasn’t a “mean thing under the sun.” Everything was important. While anyone could argue that this is his philosophy or his theme (and both those are true), it is also his voice. The language, no matter how simple or how grand, elevates his subject matter. Nowhere is that more true, perhaps, that when he’s capturing the sensibilities of a person (character) whose language would not have allowed such eloquent expression. Faulkner speaks for him or her. There are critics who comment on some of Faulkner’s grandiose language as playing a joke—the pastoral grandeur, for example, of Ike Snopes story, or the dense reality of Benjy, with the mind of a three year old, or Flem Snopes, constrained by a greed so strong he can barely move. No matter how terse, mute, or vociferous the character, the indulgence, sympathy, and understanding of the author who created them is the voice that couches them.

Raymond Carver, a far cry from Faulkner in style, I’m sure most would agree, has a very similar compassionate humanity.  His style isn’t as grand, doesn’t have the breadth of range as Faulkner’s. His style is economic, direct, everyday speech, much of it disembodied dialog. Descriptions are sparse, hinted. Details from the environment are also sparse, no great historical background, no lengthy sermonizing by characters or narrator. Everyday situations, speech. But he imbues stories with the same kind of import—that man’s activities are worthy of note, they matter greatly. Pain is pain. Tragedy is tragedy. Scale may different. Carver doesn’t judge. He presents honestly. Chekhov, too. A lover of the human being, a chronicler of pride. A compassionate voice.

One’s voice, I believe, develops from one’s beliefs about the world, and hope for it. One’s style is the expression of that voice. It may take time to develop, as the voice did. A writer should aspire for the best, truest expression of belief, and be bold and diligent in trying.

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