Category Archives: Interviews

Love Will Steer Me True: A conversation with authors Jane and Ellen Knuth

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My pre-mom life involved two extended stays in Paris: I studied abroad for one semester in college, then returned after graduation to teach English for a year.  Both experiences were exciting, rewarding, life-changing.

But I have to admit that at the time, I gave very little thought to how my mom was handling it all.

As a parent myself now, I have a sense of how hard that separation was for her.  My kids are still young, but when I think of one of them someday doing what I did and moving to the other hemisphere,  my pulse starts to race.  Although I know from my own past that living abroad can forever enrich your life, I know from my present that it must be extremely hard for a parent to see her child go so far away.

So I could very much relate to the book Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love, and God by Jane Knuth and her daughter Ellen Knuth.  In fact, I didn’t just relate to it; I loved it.

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Love Will Steer Me True tells the story of Ellen’s experiences teaching English in Japan, and — here’s what makes it so unique —  it’s told from the point of view of both mother and daughter, alternating narrators.  As a result, you get an insider view on the relationship between a mother and her adult child, along with two perspectives on faith and culture and letting go.  It’s  real, honest, and touching, and I was delighted to have the chance to talk to both Ellen and Jane about the book.

What is the two-sentence description of your book? 

 Jane: This is a true story about women’s spiritual journeys told from the  perspectives of a mother and daughter . The daughter, Ellen, is working and living in Japan for four years in her mid-twenties, and the mom, Jane, is back in the USA worrying about how God fits into all this.

What was it like to collaborate on a book?  What were the challenges of co-authoring, and what were the unique joys? 

 Ellen: Having never written a book before, collaborating with my mother on the manuscript was a great way to enter the writing world. I was initially concerned about being able to maintain a distinct “voice” without becoming too influenced by my mom’s writing style, but once we hit our stride it was great fun discussing how our chapters would play together.

Jane: I thought it would be more difficult than it was. It was fun to read Ellen’s chapters and remember the events together. We spent one long weekend in a motel in Kentucky in order to pull the thing together, which was exhausting, but fun.

I always find that writing about my experiences makes me understand them in a new light.  What did you learn about your own experiences as a result of writing this book? 

Ellen: Putting the stories to paper really brought into focus how all of these seemingly un-connected events that happened over the course of several years were, in many ways, a fluid progression. It helped me reflect on how far I’d come and how much my relationship with my mother had grown during my time away.

Jane: I learned that my motherly worry is often not helpful. It can stunt the growth of the child and the parent both.

Jane,  I love the scene when your husband reminds you that worry and prayer are not the same thing.  How do worries change as your kids grow up?  How has your prayer life changed as your kids have grown up?

Jane: When the kids were very young, I worried that I wasn’t doing things right, teaching them enough, spending quality time, etc. Once they were in college, I worried that they hadn’t understood all I tried to teach them, and I began to teach them over again. That’s what people commonly call nagging. My husband pointed this out in a gentle way and encouraged me to pray silently instead. Prayer of this type is a huge leap of faith because you are turning over your heart to God and  trusting that he won’t drop it.

Ellen, it  was fascinating to read how your experiences in Japan helped you see your childhood faith traditions in a new light.  What is the biggest lesson that your time abroad has taught you about faith?

Ellen: That love is truly at the core of my faith journey. Even in the hardest moments when I felt confused or lost, love anchored me.

What did you learn about each other’s experiences of this time that you  didn’t know before writing the book? 

 Jane: I didn’t know the story of Ellen’s conversation with Ayden, her agnostic friend, after the death of her friend Rodger. Ayden is a loving, whip-smart, courageous young man who verbalizes the non-faith perspective of death in a touching way.

Ellen: I talk about a lot of things with my mom, she knows all about my insecurities and fears! However, I don’t think we’d ever really discussed HER insecurities, especially where our relationship was concerned. That all came out during the book-writing process

What is one thing your daughter/mom wrote in the book that really surprised you? 

 Jane: I was surprised that Ellen yearned for her parents to be proud of her and what she was doing in Japan. We have always been proud of our kids, so this struck me . I think what she wanted was that we would give our blessing to her . Our worry, and expressing our worry, was kind of like an anti-blessing. She didn’t need that.

Ellen: Though I could objectively identify my mother’s worries as coming from a place of love and good intention, it wasn’t until I read her chapters that I understood that no anger and disappointment factored into her worry. That was a huge surprise!

What is the best thing a mother can give her daughter before she moves overseas? 

 Ellen: Her blessing! My mother and father took the time to write a series of notes for me before I left. They were labeled with titles like “For a bad day” or “For when your head feels fuzzy”, etc and having those little affirmations of their love and support to read and save on the days I felt lowest were awesome.

Jane: A rosary.  It’s a prayer, a blessing, and a link to home, all in one little package.

Thanks to Ellen and Jane for being my guests here today!   And, gentle blog reader, do yourself a favor and read Love Will Steer Me True.  It’s available from Loyola Press, Amazon.com, and BarnesandNoble.com.  

Tarn Wilson on writing memoir, understanding our parents, and her book “The Slow Farm”

If you like beautifully-written  books about  unconventional childhoods, put Tarn Wilson’s  The Slow Farm on your reading list.   This is a fascinating book in so many ways: as a memoir,  as a look at the hippy subculture, as a story about memory, as a reflection on what it means to grow into the realization that our parents are imperfect people.  Tarn is a friend of mine from way back, and she’s also one of my favorite writers (check out her website tarnwilson.com for a sampling of her brilliant essays), so I’m thrilled to have her here today for a Q and A.  Read on to learn more about her book,  about writing memoir, and about what happens when you let your two-year-old play in the woods without adult supervision (see what I mean about “unconventional childhood”?!?)

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Give the one-minute summary of your book.

The Slow Farm is a memoir of growing up with my hippy parents on a remote island in British Columbia in the early 1970s.  My father was an idealist, and the story explores what happens when his counterculture dreams begin to crumble.

The story is told from the point of view of a small child, but between each chapter, I include “artifacts” that reveal the larger cultural forces shaping our lives, such as letters, photographs, timelines, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and my favorite, excerpts from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing.

What are the challenges of writing a book about your early childhood?

I have vivid memories of early childhood, starting from about two years old.  Early in the writing process, I experimented with strategies to access even more memories, such as focusing on the senses, writing about photographs, and drawing memory maps. However, the memories didn’t initially organize themselves chronologically or in a traditional story arc.  It took many years of reflection to discover the themes and shape of the story. It was also a challenge to find a voice that captured the innocent perspective of childhood, but was not limited by it.

One thing I found fascinating as a parent is how “hands off” your parents were — at the age of four they let you go off and wander in the woods on your own!  That’s only one of the many things that made your childhood unique.  When you look back on it as an adult, what parts of “you today” do you attribute to your parents’ parenting styles?

Great question, Ginny.  If I were a parent, I wouldn’t let my two and four year old wander in the woods or swim in the ocean without supervision! At the same time, having escaped death and major injury, I’m grateful for the gifts of my parents’ philosophy of childrearing.  I’m comfortable in silence and solitude.  I’m self-entertaining. Most of all, I think when parents give their children some unsupervised free time, they have room to develop their imaginations, to experiment with new skills and interests, to fail, and to try again—all of which develop resilience, self-sufficiency, focus, and endurance. I believe when children are constantly monitored, they focus on the reactions of their parents rather than on the pure joy of exploring or mastering a new skill.

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How did writing this book change your understanding of your parents?

 Before writing this book, I was stuck in my child perspective, which is narrow and limited. Early in the process, as an exercise to broaden my view, I wrote every scene from the point of view of each family member.  It was a revelation to realize how young my parents were. (When I was born, my mother was 20 and my father was 25.)  That alone explains many of their choices. I also saw more clearly how my parents were formed by their own childhoods and roles in their families. Most importantly, I realized how profoundly my parents were shaped by their times—how much we all are.  I researched the historical events that shaped their generation, read the counterculture books and essays my father loved, and listened to my parent’s favorite musicians. I saw the ways in which my parents’ decisions were in dialogue with powerful cultural forces. I began to understand, not just where I fit in my family, but where my family fit in the flow of history.

A major theme of your book is the theme of idealism giving way to reality.  Can you say a little bit more about that as it played out in the lives of your family?

 I have a theory that most of us all come into this world hardwired to worship our parents.  It’s a survival-of-the-species strategy.  As infants and children, we need to learn so much, quickly and efficiently, in order to navigate our new, complicated world, so we absorb without question everything our parents say or believe.  Slowly, as we mature, we become part of a larger universe, develop our reasoning skills, and begin to see our parents’ weaknesses.  This can be a painful process, which we all do with different degrees of graciousness.  If our parents have many faults, we may go through periods of anger.

Becoming a mature adult means, eventually, seeing our parents in their fullness:  understanding the forces that shaped them, accepting their limitations, and acknowledging their strengths and the gifts they have given us. Some people do this naturally—most of us have to go through the process again and again as we fall in love, make a new friends, or learn to see ourselves clearly.

In that sense, my story is everyone’s story.  But my memoir has an extra layer.  The counterculture was highly idealistic: hippies believed they had the power to create heaven on earth, to live in love and harmony with each other and the land, to eradicate war, to bring equality to all.  When the dream didn’t materialize, they had choices to make.  Some hippies I knew changed with the times and become successful business people, albeit with an eco-groovy bent.  Some turned to drugs to escape disappointment or to maintain the feeling of love, connectedness, and meaning—and got lost there. Some tried to continue the lifestyle and lived on the shrinking margins. Most had to find some kind of balance between noble social ideals and the necessary practicalities of day-to-day living.

For the rest of his life, my father seemed pulled between his hippy ideals and his desire to be a successful entrepreneur. He didn’t know how to reconcile the two, so he’d pendulum between the extremes. Both my sister and I are in fields that serve the community (city planning and teaching) but like having a regular paycheck.  The students I teach today seem to have reached a perfect balance: they are neither as naïve as the hippies, nor as materialistic and self-serving as those I graduated with in the 80s.  They hunger to make a difference in the world, seem to have a realistic sense of difficulties, and are committed to the work.  It’s inspiring!

One unique aspect of your book are the “artifacts” that are included throughout — bits of letters, photos, the books that shaped your parents’ philosophies, etc.  Say more about those.

The artifacts allow me to keep the child voice while still providing adult context.  I thought very carefully about where to place the artifacts; however, I don’t analyze or interpret them.  I hope that leaves room for readers to engage with the story and develop their own conclusions.  For example, I place quotes from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing (such as ones that advise parents to avoid the enforcement of table matters, let children swear, and expose them to adult sexuality) next to scenes that show that philosophy in practice. I hope readers will arrive at their own complex conclusions about the counterculture lifestyle.

What advice do you have for other aspiring memoir writers?

There are wonderful resources for memoir writers: local courses, online courses, and shelves of useful and inspiring books to encourage and guide.  But, usually the biggest obstacle for anyone hoping to write a memoir is a sabotaging interior voice. It will tailor its message to your favorite insecurities, but will usually sound something like this: Your story isn’t important enough to write. You don’t have time. You don’t have skill. You don’t have a story. Writing your memoir is self-indulgent and narcissistic. You will upset your family. If you have trauma in your life, the message might argue your story is too dark to share.

All these messages are self-sabotaging distractions.  If you have a persistent desire to tell your story (through memoir, poetry, painting, performance, storytelling etc.), honor it. I believe it is a divine impulse, and that impulse is leading you to healing, to understanding, to a greater sense of your own wholeness. If you are like most writers, your process will be challenging: you will have to fight your own self-doubts, wrestle with the language, learn new skills, perhaps re-live uncomfortable memories, and be willing to see yourself and your past with fresh eyes.

Although everyone’s process is different, most new memoir writers benefit from a regular writing practice, in which you generate new material—quickly, without judgment, and without a too defined sense of where you are going. (If you solidify your story too early in the process, you may miss important discoveries.) Once you have a mass of material and, hopefully, some themes which have surprised you, you can begin to discover the organization of your story and refine your language. (A book I recommend to help you craft your raw material is Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.)  Whether or not your work is ever traditionally published, your story will polish and transform you, and that will be worth the effort.

 The Slow Farm is available from Ovenbird Books and from Amazon.com.  Be sure to check out tarnwilson.com for a look at Tarn’s essays.

Interview with Jake Martin, SJ — Part Two

Previously on Random Acts of Momness, I spoke with Jake Martin, SJ about comedy and faith (two things he knows well).   Here’s the rest of the interview.  (And if you like what you read here, check out his great book What’s So Funny About Faith?  A Memoir From the Intersection of Hilarious and Holy).

 

 

If you could meet any spiritual giant, dead or alive, whom would you like to meet?

Again, I’m going to go with two, male and female.  Therese of Lisieux and Ignatius of Loyola.  I’ve pretty much devoured everything that can be read by and about Therese, I just find her “little way” to be incredibly practical; she’s truly a contemporary saint for contemporary times, despite what the superficialities of her story would lead you to believe.

Ignatius is just my hero, I identify with his story so much, moving from a place of desire for fame to a desire to serve God.  Again, I just find him very relatable, and he really does seem like he would be really cool to hang out with.  To steal a phrase from my high school students, he seems like he would be “very chill”.

I’m a mom, and lots of my blog readers are moms.  If you could thank your mom for any one thing, what would it be?

Giving me a deep and profound understanding of what love is.  My mother’s love for me is astonishing, when I think about all that she’s given me, her protection, care, concern, guidance, if I think about long enough I’m stunned and humbled by the depth and constancy of her love for me.

You talk about how comedy is often a way for us to vicariously enjoy the world the way it should be, to get a satisfying glimpse of just desserts (like the snobby rich person getting a pie in the face).   You write, “What comedy does – however fleeting and momentary it may prove – is empower the vulnerable and give a voice to the voiceless.”  Is it a stretch to call comedy a path towards social justice?

Not necessarily.  I do think that shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show do hold a mirror up to our world and ask us to take a hard look at the behavior and the decisions being made by people in positions of power.  Of course on the first level these shows are entertainment, but I don’t think you can walk away from them without in some way questioning the things that our society values.  It’s certainly not “in the trenches” so to speak, but these type of shows definitely raise questions that—for those willing to seek answers—call for action. 

When it comes to comedy, I think we all have a favorite movie scene/episode/standup routine that never gets old.  What’s yours?

Probably the stand-off sequence between all the various news anchors in the movie Anchorman, it consists of so many really funny people: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Dave Koechner, Steve Carrell, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller and the scenario is hilarious and its played out perfectly.  I’ve seen the film too many times to count and some parts of it aren’t as funny as they used to be, but that one still gets me.

What’s one thing you know now about God that you didn’t know ten years ago?

Ten years ago I was a agnostic posing as an atheist so…I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that God loves me (and you) in my brokenness, that God’s love transcends all of my preconceptions, and ideas about what God is and what God is supposed to do.

What’s so funny about faith? — Part One of an interview with Jake Martin, SJ

A few weeks back, I wrote about Jake Martin’s terrific book   What’s So Funny About Faith?  A Memoir From the Intersection of Hilarious and Holy.   Jake is a professional comedian who followed the call to enter the priesthood, and the book features all kinds of fascinating insights into both comedy and faith.  Jake is  a Jesuit comedian and writer whose work has appeared in America Magazine, Busted Halo and the Huffington Post. He is currently studying theology in Berkeley, California, and it’s a pleasure to share Part One of my interview with him below. Thanks, Jake!

In a few sentences, give us a sense of what your book is all about.

In the most simplistic sense, the book is about my attempts to reconcile my life as a comedian with my life as a person of faith, more specifically as a Jesuit.  But in a broader sense it’s about the apparent disconnect I think that all of us encounter between the world of popular culture and the world of religion/spirituality.  I’m not unusual in that television and film were a huge part of my personal development, but at the same time Catholicism also played a huge role in shaping who I am, and this book is about bridging that gap.  It never felt right to me that these two things (faith and popular culture) had to exist in separate spheres, I felt that there was some overlap, that just in the same way someone could encounter God in DaVinci’s The Last Supper, so too could someone also find God in an episode of Roseanne.

 Are there aspects of life as a professional comedian that prepared you well for the priesthood? 

Well, I think the obvious one is the public speaking part.  Everyone would always say to me when I was discerning my vocation to the Jesuits, “Oh well, you’ll give great homilies because you’re a comedian.”  The jury is still out on that one.

However, another thing that I don’t think is as readily apparent about comedy is that the truth is always there…well at least in good, comedy.  I was taught improv by some pretty amazing folks who always emphasized the importance of “truth in comedy,” how what is funny is what is true, that you don’t have to manufacture things to get a laugh.  The fundamental honesty of who you are and what life is, is much funnier than anything you could  make up.  And I think that honesty, that authenticity, has served me well as I became a Jesuit and prepare for the priesthood.

There’s definitely a stereotype that people who are religious have no sense of humor.  Where do you think that stereotype comes from? 

Well, I think it’s the matter of reverence, at least in the Catholic tradition, that idea of standing in awe before God.  Being raised Catholic I know that going to Mass when I was a child was always about paying attention and being quiet and doing what you’re told when you’re told.   I don’t think that’s a bad thing either, there is definitely a time and place for it.  But I guess when it becomes “God is serious business all the time” that problems arise.  I think it’s an easy trap to fall into, but with it you lose a lot of the joy that’s there.  Joy and humor go hand in hand and I think it’s an important to remember.

If you could meet any comedic giant, dead or alive, whom would you like to meet?

Well, from my own personal experience of comedians, sometime it is better not to meet them face to face.  Being funny on stage does not necessarily equate with someone you ever want to spend time with; but if I had to choose, it would probably be Gilda Radner or Richard Pryor.  I don’t think I could pick between the two.  Gilda was the first person I ever saw on television who made me laugh and watching her old sketches today she still does.  Pryor was just a genius, who had such a difficult life and while he probably wasn’t a delight to be around, I would like to know how his mind works.

Come back Thursday for Part Two, in which Jake shares his thoughts on comedy as a path to social justice and reflects on the best gift his mom gave him.

Interview with Mary Curran Hackett, author of Proof of Heaven

A boy with a rare heart condition, a single mom who will try anything to save him, a cynical but loving uncle, a doctor who has suffered his own personal tragedy: these are the four main characters in Mary Curran Hackett’s thought-provoking new novel Proof of Heaven.  

It’s a book with a fascinating premise:  the little boy Colm has a rare condition in which his heart and his brain are at war with each other, which causes him to “die” at random moments before being resuscitated.  This dying gives him a certain perspective on faith, one that is at odds with the beliefs of his mother Cathleen, who hangs onto the Catholic faith of her childhood as a way to find solace for herself and healing for her little boy.   It’s a beautiful read; the plot (especially the ending)  really made me think about spirituality, about what it means to believe in heaven and how exactly to define heaven in the first place.   There’s a lot to chew on in this story, and I love how the characters each bring a different perspective to the big questions we all ponder.  (I’ve also decided that I want a doctor like the fabulous Dr. Basu!).

So it’s an  honor to have the author Mary Curran Hackett here as a guest, sharing some fascinating insights about the experience of writing (and in some cases, living) the novel.  Welcome, Mary, and congratulations on the new book!

As you explain on your website, the story of Proof of Heaven was inspired in part by your own heart condition, as well as by a terrifying experience in which your infant son suddenly lost consciousness. What was it like to write about real-life experiences as fiction? 

I have always found it much safer to write fiction than nonfiction. I feel a bit more free to express my feelings, because I don’t have to worry whether or not I am remembering things perfectly or if I am causing some harm to another person whom I know and love by revealing too much. So whenever I need to process something I turn the real into the unreal and remove myself completely. Once I let my characters take over, I find it so liberating. I actually wrote the first chapter of my book, as somewhat of a purge, an exercise really. I didn’t even see it as a “chapter” of anything. I had no intention of writing a book. In fact it was entirely coincidental that I found the file several years later.

What was the most challenging part of writing the book? 

Staying awake. I wrote the book in a two–week burst after an agent, who read what is now the first chapter, asked for the entire book. Only problem: I didn’t have an entire book. I knew I had to take advantage of a “yes” from an agent, and so I told her I needed a couple of weeks to “tidy up the manuscript.” (What I really needed to do was write the book.) Long story short: I worked every night for two weeks and wrote straight through 2 weekends. I also did it all with my children underfoot. I still had to drop them off and pick them up at school, go to work, make meals, move laundry––and everything in between you can imagine a mother needs to do on any given day. I also was working as an editor and teaching two classes at University of Cincinnati at the time too. My husband was super helpful though and stepped in every night at 6:30 after he arrived home from work. He cleaned up after dinner and helped with the kids’ homework and their nighttime routine. I wrote till dawn, slept a couple of hours, got up and went to work––and started all over again each night. I finished the book two weeks after I started it on October 31st, 2009, just a few minutes before I took the kids out to Trick–Or–Treat. (I promptly crashed sideways on my bed afterward and slept for 18 hours).

I really love your descriptions of Assisi, home of St. Francis. Was that section based on a real pilgrimage? 

Thank you! I loved writing that chapter. Assisi made it easy. I just had to write what I saw. And magic just happens––because, well, it’s Assisi. I had traveled there several years ago for my job as a book editor for St. Anthony Messenger Press. The Province was kind enough to send me there to understand the Franciscan mission and history. Because I spend a lot of time editing books about Francis and Clare, I initially saw the trip less as a pilgrimage and more as a “research” trip for my daily work. But it turned into being so much more. I made wonderful friends, fell in love with Italy, and as it turns out, I came home with a lot of material for a novel I had not even known I would one day write.

Faith is such a huge part of the book, and it’s something that so many of us struggle to understand and hold onto. If you had to share one thing that you know for sure about faith, what would you say? 

You know, I think this is a fascinating question. While I think faith is part of the book, I actually think it plays a small part. Funny? I know the title itself might lead people to think I am going to telling people what to believe, and perhaps some are hoping I prove heaven’s existence (or at the very least my proof matches up with theirs), but I had an entirely different objective and perspective. The characters all have different experiences and paths, and therefore different ideas about what faith, love, and life is or isn’t. To answer your question though: For me, the only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing. (Yes, I ripped that from Socrates. But it’s true.) That’s why I tend to say “I believe” and not “I know” when it comes to talking about faith. All I can say is I’m in it with the rest of the world––I am just wishing, hoping, praying and trying to do my best every day to be a good person and not mess up my kids (and the world) too much while I am trying to figure it all out.

 In the book, Cathleen’s faith is instilled in her by her mother, and Cathleen in turn tries to share that faith with her son. What’s one spiritual tradition that you learned from your mom and are now passing to your own kids? 

Oh, wow. My mom is big on tradition and spirituality. I am afraid I am a terrible protégé in that regard. She prayed the Rosary every day, went to Mass nearly as much. She also went through a stack of prayer cards before she even got out of bed in the morning. She worked for the church, and spent most evenings when she wasn’t with her eight kids at some church–related event. She also had more Jesus and Mary going on in our hallways and bedrooms than most modern churches do today. As a kid, I thought it was all a bit much. She was entitled to her devoutness though and that’s what worked for her, but it’s not something that works for me and my family. In fact I did try to put a statue of Mary in my bedroom and my husband thought it was a bit freaky (Full disclosure: the statue was encased in glass, lace–trimmed and gilded! He had a point. Needless to say, my mom took it off my hands last time she was in town.) While I don’t say the rosary with my kids, we always say a prayer together at dinner and we always talk about something going on in the world––just like my mom did with us. I love to hear what my kids are praying for, what they’re thinking about, what their doubts are, and how they’re learning how to be compassionate, grateful, and a part of the world that is so much bigger than them.

For more information on Proof of Heaven, visit Mary’s website.