writing through grief with laura geringer bass

Laura Geringer Bass carries a stack of printed cards in her bag — writing prompts inspired by her middle grade novel “The Girl With More Than One Heart.”

“Hurricane”

“You are my Rock”

“Breathe Blue”

Each card stands on its own, but each one also references a theme or scene from the book in which fourteen-year-old Briana’s father has died. Suddenly Briana has two hearts — her own and her “Dad heart,” which speaks to her in her grief.

It’s a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the unexpected power of those writing prompts.

After listening to the gentle brilliance of Laura Geringer Bass at the South Dakota Festival of Books, it means something that she wants to give you a writing prompt. She understands “The Girl With More Than One Heart” has opened a door within you and beyond that door, your own story is waiting to be told.

She wants to help you tell it.

The author joined me on “In the Moment” for a radio interview. I visited her again at the festival in Brookings, where I heard her speak about mentors in her life.

By the end of our time together, Laura had gifted me two cards — two writing prompts to take home.

“You Are My Rock” and “Breathe Blue.”

What she couldn’t have known, was that I had a secret: There was one card in the pile I didn’t want to look at. I was afraid of it.

“I Miss My Dad.”

Of course, as is the way of these things, this became the card that stayed with me, even though I didn’t physically possess it.

I miss my Dad I miss my Dad I miss my Dad.

Just as Briana is surprised by the presence of her Dad heart, I am often surprised by the ways in which grief sneaks up on me. He’s been gone four years now. He never heard me on the radio. I’d like to think he would have listened, but I’m honestly not sure.

You see my father, more than anyone in my life, could get irritated with my relentless desire to ask just one more question. Maybe he would have found the idea of asking questions for a living amusing.

I like to think he’d also be proud of the work we do on public radio. But one of the consistent surprises of grief is how often I don’t know what he would have thought and how painful that can be.

Like most of us, my dad was always changing. New information and new relationships would inform his opinions and ideas, sometimes drastically.

He changed. Our relationship changed. And then it didn’t because one of us was gone.

Laura Geringer Bass reminded me that writing about grief can have enormous value. I don’t have a “Dad heart,” but I do have a writing prompt.

I sit down with my notebook and begin. “I miss my Dad …”

The next words appear in my journal without the realization that I have written them:

“I miss you too.”

We write back and forth like this, my father and I, for some time.

Perhaps I have a Dad heart after all, waiting in my notebook all this time.

Thank you, Laura. You are my rock.

Here’s my conversation with Laura Geringer Bass on “In the Moment” on SDPB Radio.

For your own copy of writing prompts from “The Girl With More Than One Heart,” click here. 

For more about Laura Geringer Bass, click here. 

 

 

raising a child with Ursula LeGuin

We discovered Ursula LeGuin’s “Catwings” when my daughter, Jane, was quite young. She was drawn to the book’s cover with its detailed art that hinted winged cats were the most natural creatures in the world. Since one of the books in the series featured a black cat named Jane, we wanted to read them all.

That realism mattered a great deal. You held “Catwings” in your hand and entered the story before turning the cover. The color palette was melancholy, promising delicate stories about delicate lives. On the other hand, as delightful as cats with wings might be, there was part of you that didn’t want them to exist. You knew — even children knew — such creatures were at risk in a world such as ours.

It’s a classic anthropomorphic motif: Small animals make their way in the world, encountering cruelty and stumbling upon protection, struggling through misunderstanding and learning to accept affection. This is what it means to be a child, of course. Every adult you meet has the potential to harm you or heal you in ways you have yet to imagine.

While it is true that children identify with the vulnerable, shy-yet-adventurous cats (All the better that these cats are unique and misunderstood; so is the reader!) it is also true that children see the cats (simultaneously, this is no contradiction) as “other.”

The Catwings do not inhabit a fantasy place. They pad and flutter about in our place — a place with car exhaust and barking dogs and honking horns and stomping feet. Readers recognize what we have created and see it as it is, especially to those encountering it for the first time.

Noisy. Confusing. Dangerous.

Ursula LeGuin isn’t writing about wonder and adventure, though there is plenty of both tucked into the pages of “Catwings.” Ursula LeGuin is writing about empathy.

When cats Thelma, Harriet, James, and Roger at last meet the children, the author lays out an eloquently structured mirroring of thought, word, and action. Cats begin to trust humans and humans process how to be worthy of trust. The children speak to each other about their own responsibility and the importance of secrecy. They are not only inclined toward kindness, they are determined to be kind.

And then, the deeply satisfying final lines:

“Oh Hank,” Susan whispered, “Their wings are furry.”

“Oh James,” Harriet whispered, “Their hands are kind.”

When I read “Catwings” (again and again) to my daughter (she was maybe three or four when we first discovered it) she identified with the cats. She intuitively knew the world beyond our reading chair was a broad, complex place filled with mother owls and rainstorms, as well as shelter from mother owls and rainstorms. She pretended to be a cat — one who could flit away from danger with a flick of feathers.

And yet she knew she was also a child, and so she became watchful. She navigated the world with an eye to the sky in hopes of sighting a flying cat. Her hands were kind — to kittens and to mice, to delicate flowers, to pages of books.

I read “Catwings” aloud to Jane recently, after we heard of LeGuin’s death. At 16, Jane saw an additional allegory, one of refugees and border crossings and the power of compassion. Is that what the book was always about, she wondered. Was that always hiding within the pages?

The best children’s literature features the most sumptuous syntax, the most memorable characters, and the most essential stories of who we are and who we are capable of becoming.

Before she learned Calculus, before she learned Rhetoric, my child curled herself into a ball, leaning in as close to me as she could reasonably get. With this task in hand, she leaned in to every word, and that is how she learned empathy from Ursula LeGuin — one of many children’s authors who do the important work of raising us all.

When this child flies away, she carries this with her.

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