Remembering Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

Toni Morrison novels

 

I first read Toni Morrison in my twenties; it was the novel Tar Baby. Three decades later, I find her to be the most compelling writer in my lifetime. In her writing she chronicles and lays bare the experience of black people in this country in a way that is both affirming and gut wrenching in its truth. When I heard the news she had passed on I felt compelled to try to explain what her work has meant to me, but it is nearly impossible to do.

Maybe the best way is with a story, one related to her book Beloved. I had read Beloved before, but it was only after rereading it a couple of years ago that I truly immersed myself in the history and legacy of the story. In the book, Sethe makes the lifechanging decision to escape the cruelty of slavery in Kentucky and cross the Ohio River with one toddler child, and another on the way. When the slave catchers come after her, she attempts to kill her children rather than have them be enslaved again. It is hard to imagine making that choice as a mother, but then again, only one who had known how horrific life would be if she returned, for all of them, could understand the choice she made. Sethe kills one child before she is stopped and captured.

The story of Beloved was based, or maybe inspired is a better word, by the true story of Margaret Garner, who escaped from Kentucky, got to Cincinnati,(my hometown) and like Sethe in the novel Beloved, killed her child rather than have it taken away. Margaret Garner was captured as she killed the child, and was later tried. In another insult to her humanity, and the humanity of her children, she was not tried for murder. She was tried for destruction of property, because the child was not considered anything more than the property belonging to another human being, the slaveowner.

In Beloved, Ms. Morrison accomplished a major feat—addressing the devastating and ongoing impact of slavery on the minds, spirits, and bodies of black people, as well as the daily cruelties and suffering they endured. It is not easy to read, but I felt as if she had explained my story and the story of my ancestors in this novel. She wrote in her foreword, “In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.”

I read Beloved and I realized the river I grew up looking at from the bluffs of Eden Park had helped Margaret Garner pass over, and streets I knew in downtown Cincinnati had sheltered her and many others seeking freedom. Other forms of oppression awaited them, even in the north, but they sought relief from physical slavery and a chance to start new lives.

The Cincinnati Opera co-commissioned the opera Margaret Garner, and I was involved in a community engagement project to expand the audience for this opera. Margaret Garner was performed in 2005, each night sold out, and it was the most diverse audience in the history of Cincinnati Opera. There was a private reception before its opening and I was among the guests. I looked towards the door, and in walked Ms. Morrison. She was regal, her gray locks flowing, eyes scanning the room. There were so many people in the room, all eager to meet her, have their time with her. But in one moment, she saw me looking at her, and I smiled, and whispered “Hi”, trying to communicate I see you and I’m glad to see you, but I know everyone in this room wants to have your time, and I don’t want to be another person pulling at you. She smiled back, I nodded, and I left soon after. I had seen Toni Morrison, her books had already touched me, and there was no other reason for me to stay.

Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel in Literature in 1993. Our country’s greatest writer has passed on. She has been an inspiration to me because her prose was so powerful and evocative and gave attention to stories about people that had remained unknown, ignored or unexamined by many. I am grateful for the richness of her legacy and the magnificence of her writing.

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One other note: I have heard many adults say that Morrison’s work is difficult. I believe it requires careful reading, but the topics and her unflinching look at our culture are very likely what people find difficult. However, she wrote a children’s book, The Big Box, with her son Slade Morrison, which I gave out as a graduation gift for years while it was still in print. I will make sure that my granddaughters do not wait until they are 20 to pick up their first Morrison book; I am so glad to have a copy of that book in my collection.

The Big Box by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison

 

 

Thoughts on Father’s Day and Fathers

Father’s Day has always been special for me; I have such a good father, and the day also comes so close to my birthday that my birthday and being a daughter have always felt linked. Today we celebrate the fathers, godfathers, other family and friends who have raised us and in many cases, helped to raise our children. We also remember the fathers who have passed on, and those who miss them.

Aviya Kushner, author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, wrote about her father in a way I could relate to. In this book Kushner, who grew up reading in Hebrew, explores how differences in translation, language, and culture affect the understanding of the Bible. It is also a fascinating story about her  family and I highly recommend you read it. Here are her words from this memoir:

My father taught me what he has always taught me: how to ignore the disapproval of the world, no matter how loud it is. He taught me how to listen to myself, and how to hear that same thing in other people and places: the quiet beating of the individual heart.

I hope each one of us would have such a person in their life.

 

I Go to the Rock

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My husband and I sat with my father at mass this past Sunday, the ritual and order of the service familiar to each one of us, imprinted in a combined nearly 200 years of experience with the Roman Catholic Church. This church, which was renamed the Church of the Resurrection after three predominately Black churches, St. Andrew, St. Agnes, and St. Mark were merged, is where my parents attended church together for the last several years until my mother passed away in 2017. Continue reading

Black Domers – selected as book club selection

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I have great news to share—Black Domers: African-American Students at Notre Dame in Their Own Words, edited by Don Wycliff and David Krashna, was selected by U.S. Catholic Magazine as its January 2019 book club selection. My essay, which describes my experience as a Notre Dame student years ago, is one of many in this anthology.  The book tells how Black students first began to attend Notre Dame, how we made it through, what challenges and opportunities we faced, and what we have to say about our time there and relationship to the University, now that there has been time to reflect. The book starts with the first Black student, Frazier Thompson (class of 1947), and continues to alumni who graduated last year. The stories begin in the 1940s and provide interesting historical context.

Writing the essay was a rewarding experience for me, because it reveals what I love best about the essay form. Not only can a good essay connect us to a more universal story, but it requires the writer to do more than recount what happened. Writing an essay requires that you try to make sense of how the event or person has shaped you, what you took away from it. I learned there is not one typical ND experience, nor did we all respond the same way when confronted with challenges. All of the stories are not upbeat, but they demonstrate the resilience of the students.

I hope you will be able to read some of the stories, and would love to hear from you if you do.

Update: Some have asked where the book can be found. It is available on Amazon and in the Notre Dame bookstore if you happen to be in South Bend, IN. Thank you for your support and interest. I also wanted to add that in lieu of any payment, the authors agreed to support an endowment for scholarships so other students can have their own ND story.

 

 

Walking Away Money

 

Several years ago, I left a job that I mostly enjoyed, planning to take a one-year sabbatical to sort out what my next move would be. I was a development officer, also known as a fundraiser, for a large midwestern university with national name recognition. I believed in the programs for which I fundraised, the visual and performing arts, scholarships, endowments, and I met amazing benefactors, many of whom I still maintain friendships with. But I knew I needed a change, wanted to explore some of the stories that I carried in my head and heart. I had been able to spend time with highly creative people—artists, musicians, sculptors, actors, and writers, while in that position. When we had time, I asked about their processes, how they studied, when they found the time to practice and create. Continue reading

NaNoWriMo – Day 18 Word Count

Reporter working at typewriter.

It is Day 18 of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), my word count is 27,518 and I am not finished writing for the day. It is time to take a break and get some fresh air, run a few errands. I took my time writing today because I had to write a pivotal scene that I have been building towards for weeks (or should I say words?)

Something happened in my novel this week that was not planned. The story took a direction that I had not foreseen, so I followed it down the corridor to see where it was leading me. I also had a glimpse of what another novel could be, based on some of the subplots and characters I might not be able to include in this story. No need to get ahead of myself, I still have lots of work to get to 50,000 words.

Have a good weekend!

NaNoWriMo – Day 4 Word Count

 

Reporter working at typewriter.

Hello and thank you for checking in on me! I have received so many encouraging words – here, face-to-face, and through email. Last week I told you about my commitment to participate in National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. I’ll need to complete 50,000 words by the end of November; this is my weekly update.

Great news – it is Day 4 and I have 12,730 words on my work-in-progress! I set a faster pace for the first week because I know that I have other projects coming up and the holiday, so I wanted to get off to a strong start. I am having a blast, and like the characters that I am writing about. Wish me well, I am going to keep it up!

 

 

NaNoWriMo 2016

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NaNoWriMo, National November Writing Month, begins next week on November 1. For 30 days, I will join hundreds of thousands of writers around the world, working towards one goal—to complete a novel of 50,000 words during November. This is my first time participating in NaNoWriMo and I am excited.

I usually write shorter pieces, such as essays and profiles, and I have never completed anything this lengthy or large or imposing in my years as a writer. But I have various stories floating around in my imagination, stories that I want to explore, and I decided it would be a good challenge; I want to see what I can create after a month of focused work. I will need to write nearly 1,700 words every day to get to the finish line, but I am certain that some days will have me zipping past that goal, while other days will be a struggle to get down the first few sentences.

On December 1, I do not expect to have what could be truly called a novel, at best, it will be a messy draft, a jumble of words, twisted plots, and characters. Part of me wonders if by rushing through this process, I can develop any real sense of what it means to write a novel. I know that the real work of writing comes in revision, not in the first draft. I did not learn how to swim by putting on a swimsuit, or run by choosing running shoes based on color. After November, I may have to walk away from this work for a while, giving it time to settle in, and go back later and revise it into something that can carry the label “novel.” It doesn’t matter; I am thrilled by the prospect of trying to tell a story that is interesting enough to hold my attention for its first 30 days.

Accountability is a good partner, so I will post my word counts here every Friday during November, which will keep me focused on my progress and let you know how I am doing. If you think you have a good story in you, and want to join me, you can sign up at NaNoWriMo or just start writing on your own.

Reporter working at typewriter.Starting word count: zero, but lots of ideas…

We are All Artists

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It took a while before I felt comfortable calling myself a writer. Saying that you are a writer elicits so many questions. Some are easier to answer, such as, “What do you write?” or “Are you working on a novel?” When I respond to the first question, I explain my love for the essay form and that my favorite genre is creative nonfiction. That term sometimes requires explanation—isn’t all writing creative?— but then I add that I use the tools of the novelist while telling a true story. This seems to help them understand, and I can point them to examples, essays, books, or magazine pieces that fall under this genre.

The second question is a bit trickier, because many people immediately think of novels when you say that you are a writer. I savor novels too, with their characters and plots, evocative descriptions, and scenes. I even made an unfinished attempt at a novel many years ago, but I did not finish it. I didn’t commit the time, the plot began to flounder, and I put it aside.

Then comes the inevitable third question “So have you written a book yet, are you published?” Even though I have been published, I had to learn that being published, the frequency of it or the recognition it can bring, cannot be my sole reason for writing. If I have labored over a work, then it is often my intent to send it out, to share it with others. But first, I had to get over imagining the book cover, the catchy title, book tours and readings. I was left with only one course of action – I had to sit down and put the words on paper. All of those imaginings are great for inspiration and ideation, but until I place the words on the page, wrestle, tease or play with them until they are properly positioned, it’s all make-believe.

Writing forces me to deal with my desire for perfection. Every time I sit down at my desk to begin a new piece, I wonder how it is going to turn out, or if it will be any good. At first. But the best part of writing is that I give myself permission to just let the words come, whether they are in a rush so swift I cannot contain them, or if they come as a measly drip, drip, drip, one tentative word at a time. When I finish the day’s writing, I always am slightly amazed at myself, not because the writing is so incredible, because it is not most of the time, certainly not right away. I am amazed because I sat down with the intention to write and I did it. I kept a commitment to myself, using a gift that I let languish for years because I was busy doing other stuff. I used to want to be like those people who discovered their vocation early in life, wishing that I had started sooner on this writing life. I have made peace with that dream, because I have lived long enough to have rich and varied experiences, and enough years have passed that I have perspective and insight about what I have gone through.

I believe that everyone is an artist of some sort. Creativity has to be nurtured, but it must also be explored. This exploration takes place when we become more aware of the diversity of thought, experience, style, and culture around us. Without this awareness of different perspectives, an adult tells a child that her picture “doesn’t look quite right,” and believes it. A writer tells a story, and because it is so foreign to your worldview, you dismiss it, instead of looking for the kernel of truth or insight, or even humor, that might be present.

I am partial to the written word, but I also have explored sewing, pottery, singing, dancing, and improving my French and Spanish. I go to hear other authors read, visit museums, poke around in small shops, searching for other ways to look at and feel the world. We are all artists of some sort, and to the question, “How do I get paid for it?” my advice is not to wait to figure out how to make money at it, at least not right away. Practice, explore, get better, and then consider if this craft is something you love enough to pursue whether it feeds you or not. I think you will be enriched by the experience of exploring your creativity, whether it becomes your livelihood or not.