A Woman of Words in A Time of Reprieve

Kim, one of my pet projects is reading Ohio writers and pondering why Ohio produces so many. You’re a woman of words who grew up in central Ohio. Can you reflect on how your childhood in this place shaped your life and/or career?

I love central Ohio … now. But when I was in my 20s, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. Somehow, I was born with a politely radical, liberal, slightly bohemian, alternative and adventurous bent. Add to that shyness, poor self-esteem (thanks, parents), introversion, and high sensitivity, and I just didn’t fit in here. I left in 1984 to seek more accepting environments. Had great fun and adventures, my first article and photographs were published, don’t regret any of it, matured greatly, inexplicably came to miss Ohio, and returned in 2005. But during my (first) time in Ohio — B.E. (Before Escape) — books saved me. They were a lifeline, a life jacket, a lifeboat. I found them at the little Utica Library and those books shaped me, comforted, enlightened, educated, made me see that there was another world out there, a place where I actually, truly belonged.

I recognize that the natural world of central Ohio also shaped me profoundly. We were always outside, we played in a huge field across the road that had an old barn and a Civil War-era cemetery and wild plants to identify, my father was always bringing home mushrooms and arrowheads and elderberries, we went camping. I bonded with nature, which seemed to have such deep empathy. And in all the states I’ve visited, none has trees like central Ohio! I adore Ohio’s trees. They touch my soul and have influenced my writing and my spiritual life with their own deep spirits.

We’ve often talked about that Golden Age when Dorothy Parker met up with her compatriots at the Algonquin, when Fitzgerald and Hemingway went on benders together…and you once said you should have been born in those days! How were you introduced to the Golden Age writers and artists? If you can talk a little bit about the ones that speak most directly to you, that would be great. And–what is it about this era that draws you?

Oh, the Golden Age. I discovered it and its writers at the Utica library in the 60s and 70s because – bless them – the library had little money for new books so they kept the ones they’d had since the 20s, 30s, and 40s. And those old books introduced me to short stories (still my favorite genre) and modern poetry, and thereby the work of James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, O. Henry, Robert Benchley, E.B. White, the New Yorker, and on and on. I don’t like to think what might have happened if that tiny library had had plenty of funding. I used to wish I’d been born earlier so I could have been part of the Golden Age … this feeling has grown dimmer with age but was powerful in my youth. New York must have been a magical, safe, vibrant place then. The literary scene there during that era really speaks to me, thanks to reading those old books. Such a rich, rich period.

From James Thurber I learned essays and humor (“Humor is both a sword and a shield,” he wrote). From Dorothy Parker I learned sharp, quick wit and short stories and that poetry can be pithy, wry, and can mean what you feel. From O. Henry, the art of the twist ending, that most delicious of forms. From Robert Benchley, Ogden Nash, Franklin Pierce Adams, and Alexander Woolcott, the art behind sly humor. It must have truly been a golden time of intellect, humor, fun … and highballs (they were always writing about highballs, which we now call cocktails), when writers were respected, as those folks should certainly have been. Even when they were tipsy.

If you could design tomorrow as an absolutely perfect day, how would it roll out?

A perfectly designed day would start with the adoption of an elderly cat who came along via pure serendipity and grace. I haven’t not had a cat in more than 20 years. Because I have eventually-terminal cancer, I can’t handle raising a rambunctious kitten or puppy. But having an elder feline spiritual advisor, friend, and companion with whom to share our last years together – gently, comfortably — and take care of each other as we age and grow more infirm … that would be marvelous.

The perfect day would also have to include a Greek fish dinner at Athens Greek Restaurant in downtown Mount Vernon, Ohio. The dish is expensive, but on a perfect day such as this, we daren’t think too much about finances and reality. Therefore, dessert would be two bags-full of cotton candy.

The remainder of the daylight hours would be spent walking and poking around in the little shops in Mount Vernon’s downtown, especially the antique stores. And the evening hours would be devoted to Reading and Study in their many glorious forms: books, online news, social media, recipes and cookbooks, magazines, the mail. And writing a real hand-written letter to you, Pam Kirst! Then, please, blissful sleep without weird dreams.

You have been, since I’ve known you, involved with the Hot Meals program at the UCC. Can you talk a little bit about that? What makes that particular program stand out from others that are similar?

You, Phillip Chandler, Sunshine Larry Raabe, and your open-hearted acceptance drew me to Hot Meals. When I was new at First Congregational Church – which I love because it’s the most open-minded, liberal church in all of Knox County – the idea of a free meal for those in need grabbed my attention. I wrote a lot of articles about the Hot Meals program, trying to get the word out. I also am enamored of the program because it is ecumenical, eight churches working together to serve a free hot meal seven nights a week. How amazing is that?

When I was a reporter at our small-town newspaper [insert swear words and wails of lamentation here, Pam] I earned $8 an hour, barely over minimum wage and not enough to pay for both rent and food. I started going to Hot Meals to eat and discovered there a sort of alternative, parallel, even underground culture existing in our town. The honored guests (as our friend and radical hospitality mentor Phillip called them) were a bit raggedy, a little rough around the edges, not always clean, and didn’t like meeting the eyes of strangers. The young people had babies whom they sometimes clearly didn’t know how to parent. The old folks squirreled away food in their bags so they could eat it later. Many of the guests exhibited signs of mental illness. And yet, they accepted me in their midst, at their tables; me wearing the bright blue London Fog raincoat a friend had given me for free. I didn’t really fit in because of that coat, and yet they accepted me.

When I finally, thankfully, lost that newspaper job and started a business, things got better. But not for them. I am blessed with the ability to land on my feet … but for grace, I might have ended up the way they did. I began volunteering at Hot Meals. But it seemed to me that although the cooking, serving, and cleanup of food was important, the making of connections, the treating of our honored guests as equals and friends, even just for an hour or so, was much more important. I committed to eating with them at their tables, being part of their conversations, drawing out their stories (not always easy). I model this part of Hot Meals, hoping other volunteers will follow.

Because I live on the edge of downtown Mount Vernon and because I ride the Knox Area Transit/MOTA buses (I don’t have a car), I see our honored guests often, some every day. Maybe “ministry” is the right word … it’s become my ministry to be friendly, welcoming, accepting, and natural with our folks, to be at ease and treat them as just another friend.

But you know what? It has literally taken years to break even a crack in the protective shells with which they conceal themselves from the rest of society, Years later, although many folks will say hello and converse, many still pretend they don’t see me and won’t speak. These folks are my special challenge and I persevere while at the same time respecting their boundaries. But my goal remains breaking down the invisible but sticky barrier between the two “social classes,” treating everyone, every single person, as a human being, a beloved child of God, and way, way, way beyond worthy. It’s working, very slowly, but with such tiny dents. Can you tell I’m passionate about Hot Meals and its honored guests?

An important thing about your life right now is that you have cancer, but it does not seem to me to be the defining thing about you. Would you be comfortable talking a little bit about your disease and how you have balanced your life?

This may sound odd or unbelievable, but cancer has improved my life in a deep and spiritual way. Strangely, it has been a real gift. When you discover you’re not going to live much longer – and once you get used to the idea and get over the shock, fear, depression, and confusion of diagnosis and nasty treatment — life and the world open up brilliantly, the perception of them changes, and they take on a new urgency.

There is literally no time to waste. The natural world looks new. Life seems precious. I see details of the natural world better now … every spring violet and tulip, every autumn leaf, every squirrel looks amazing, miraculous, awe-inducing.

I made a list of adventures I wanted to have. But I practice voluntary simplicity and lead a simple life, so on that list there are no items about climbing Mount Everest or jumping out of an airplane. Just simple things, like visiting Franklin Park Conservatory, marching in a pride parade, eating wonderful food in really good restaurants, and tasting absinthe. And I’ve accomplished almost all (the absinthe seemed like not such a good idea after all), and now there’s only one item left: getting arrested for civil disobedience. A friend said I’ll have to move to New York City for that, as nothing ever happens around here, but we’ll see.

It’s interesting too that this new life urgency does not translate to a hectic lifestyle. Somehow I feel the urgency but can easily sit still and read, listen to classical music, or meditate. I’ve been given this gift of spiritual balance and am deeply grateful for it.

I have Inflammatory Breast Cancer, the most virulent form of breast cancer, with a mere 30 percent survival rate. After surgery and treatment (the three medieval cancer weapons: cutting, poisoning, and burning), the cancer came back on my skin. And yet, after four and a half years, it hasn’t spread anywhere else. The oncologist has no explanation. Maybe Tai Chi and Chi Gong help, maybe it’s luck. But I choose to call it a miracle of grace, The Reprieve. I enjoy every day, every step, every bite, and every breath. And I’m ready. I guess that in this unexpected way the cancer *has* defined me, but positively. The Reprieve has given me time to plan a good death, wrap up business, enjoy friends, and achieve clarity. But when the cancer finally starts to spread, and it will, I’ll be ready to go on to the next level of existence.

If you could be the Great Recommender, giving advice on where or what to [_______] with a little note of explanation, where/what would you recommend someone…

…eat out for lunch?
For lunch, I recommend the Athens Greek Restaurant in downtown Mount Vernon. They’re always creating or adding new dishes and promoting them on their Facebook page. It’s fun to get a notice of a new dish and hurry down there. And the dishes are served looking just like their photos.

…shop for food?
I encourage shopping for food at the Farmers Market. Not only can you make friends with your farmer but you can ask questions about the absence of chemicals, and other matters. The food is fresh, locally grown, tasty, and reasonably priced and you’re supporting your own economy and your community’s real people and real families. And it’s also the right, ethical, and social-justice thing to do. Plus Farmers Markets are a lot of fun!

…shop for clothes?

…shop for gifts?

For clothes and gifts, Goodwill, garage sales, and thrift shops and church rummage sales. I’ve purchased my share of new clothes and accessories but now I believe it’s the wrong way to live. Every dollar we spend is a vote for what the sale supports or affects. Buying new supports rampant capitalism, the consume- throw away- consume economy, huge corporations that don’t pay their taxes, worker poverty, and sometimes even worker slavery and abuse and child labor.

…go to hear great music?
For great music, I spend a lot of time listening to WOSU Classical 101 out of Columbus. I’m not much for crowded halls or night-time drives to the big city. Kenyon College, however, is a great resource for arts performances and most are free. Unfortunately, I live car-less and the buses don’t run at night. That’s a bummer.
…read, if s/he had to choose only one book?
One book only? Aacckk. There are so many to choose from, but a book that will powerfully affect one’s thoughtfulness, lifestyle, care for the earth, vision of the future, peace of mind, and happiness is Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. I’ll bet you thought I was going to name a work of literature, didn’t you? There are just too many!

Pick three heroes and talk about them!

Only three heroes?! I have many heroes, but I’ll whittle the list down to three. Just know I don’t intend for these to seem “more than” the rest. One is Wendell Berry, poet, novelist, author, philosopher, environmental and agricultural activist, prophet, bearer of the old ways of farming and family heritage, and so much more. I got to interview him once … one of my best writer memories. So nervous, I didn’t do very well yet he was so kind, down-to-earth, a real person and not a celebrity. He has a gift for speaking truth thoughtfully, without anger, expressing strong opinions with a fleeting tiny grin playing about his lips. He does great good in the world and writes eloquently. My favorite of his many poems is “The Mad Farmer’s Manifesto.”

Emily Dickinson, because she lived her life and did her work just the way she wanted to. Fortunately, her culture made it acceptable for her to be a recluse and remain unmarried and live in the family home, all of which gave her time and energy to spend on writing. I’m intrigued by the way she tentatively shared her work, that it was found after her death and saved by her sister, that it finally saw the light of day, and that she’s a bit of a mystery.

And her poetry is incredible. A modern scholar theorized that her use of dashes indicated epileptic seizures. That’s just silly. Emily was writing music … the dashes provide the rhythm, the percussion. My church published her “Hope (is the thing with feathers)” poem in a recent bulletin, but someone took out her dashes and ruined the music. As the proofreader, I’m afraid I raised a bit of a stink, not only for ruining her music but for daring to change a genius’s work. The church office listened, though, and the final draft had Emily’s version straight out of her collected poems. Hooray. And when the congregation read the poem aloud, together, the beautiful words sang as they should. I’ve been to Emily’s Amherst, Mass., home and grave. A miniature rosebush climbed the wrought-iron fence around the grave. I admit to breaking off a bud and taking it home to dry. It’s still in my keepsake box.

Desmond Tutu is a treasure of humanity. Not only is he brave, bold, and self-sacrificing, putting himself in danger during the revolution against apartheid, he’s also impishly funny, a wonderful writer and speaker, devoted to social justice. Although he is an archbishop emeritus of the Anglican church and deeply religious, he’s not a fundamentalist. Instead, he opens love of God and humankind to all without dogma, makes spirituality accessible, and wants to gather all people around him to celebrate and love God together. He’s the perfect combination of righteous indignation and playful humor. My favorite of his books, which I return to often, is Made for Goodness, written with his daughter Mpho Tutu, also a priest. He taught me about Ubuntu (“we are all one”), a concept with the power to change everything. I was privileged to interview his daughter Naomi, another wonderful speaker.

What do you wish?

What I wish is deeply personal and ties into the next question, about writing. It is that my parents would have known what to do about me. I was born very sensitive and easily wounded, almost pathologically shy, imaginative, and literary. In other words, I was weird. They didn’t know what to do with me and apparently school staff didn’t either.

Those were the days when young women were expected to get married and have babies, nothing else. My parents, children of the Great Depression, had no foresight about the way the world was changing around them and the life skills and confidence their children would need. No mentor ever came along for me.

Years passed before it even occurred to me that I could be a writer (even though I was writing), then more years of struggle with the anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame of thinking that I had the audacity to do that. I could have written and learned so much more if I could have started sooner. But this wish has to be tempered with positivity too, because that’s the wisest way to look at life: I’ve been published over a thousand times. And now, in the last stages of life, something’s brewing again inside my spirit. I can feel it. I hope stories are working their determined way out. I suspect The Reprieve might involve writing as well as living. We’ll see.

[Kim’s work is still alive and still being referenced, as this link proves:

http://www.sdjewishworld.com/2014/12/10/case-wolf-temporary-secretary/

It’s the story, as she writes, of “…one of my literary adventures with an English novelist living in New Mexico in exile from Ireland, as written by a guy from Boston who lives in Taiwan.”]

Please talk about your writing.  How would you describe your writing?  What’s the most satisfying project you’ve worked on to date?

I’ve written so many different things: short-short stories, a travel guidebook, website content, creative non-fiction, newspaper articles, magazine stories, brochures and press releases, ad copy, even a romance novel (it was bad). I’ve learned to tailor the writing to the publication or genre. That’s a good skill to have. An editor once called me her generalist.

But my writing is almost always about people. I love listening to their stories, interviewing them, the way they open up and trust me with their tales, and then I turn what they said and how they looked when they said it (their eyes twinkle, or they get choked up, or they laugh or tell what once was a secret) into a retelling they’ll be proud of and that others will want to read (when people say they can’t stop reading it, that’s success!). I like taking their candid photographs too, which is another way of telling a story, to accompany the words.

I hate to say that my most satisfying project was at the world’s worst newspaper (which shall remain unnamed). I was the lifestyle/features writer and put this gift of mine to good use telling peoples’ stories. And the readers responded with delight. They sent thank-you notes, flowers, gifts, encouraging feedback. Their response was heartening, even as the employers’ response was tepid except when it sold newspapers and made them money. I do believe that everyone just wants her or his story heard. I got to do that and even though the employers and work atmosphere were dangerously toxic, the work was wonderful.

You suddenly have the temporary ability to share one important truth with people.  What one truth would you want everyone to embrace?

If such a miracle would happen, I would tell everyone on earth this profound truth: every one of us is a child of God, with the spark of the divine burning inside us, that we are therefore worthy, and honor-and gratitude-bound to live out our talents and our dreams. And that we can and must do this, for God’s sake because God loves us unconditionally — even when no one else does — and for our own sake and for the world’s sake. There’s a mysterious plan in place for each of our lives and we must discover it, even if it takes years. Don’t let anyone stop you! Not the naysayers, the parents, teachers and professors, relatives, friends. Believe in yourself, because God believes in you.

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