The Dumb Comfort of Your Presence

Hospital stays are one of the few times in adulthood when we have an excuse to drop all the busywork that normally preoccupies us and go to be with the people we love.  You simply spend time with them, without any social occasion for it–a wedding or anniversary, dinner or the theater.  You just sit there in the same room, making small talk or reading, offering the dumb comfort of your presence.  You are literally There for them.  When you’re a kid, this is one of dullest, most dehumanizing things you’re forced to do–being dressed up in a navy blazer or a sweater vest and dragged to family reunions to be fawned over like a photo in an album, your physical presence all that’s required of you.  But if you manage to make it to some semblance of adulthood, just showing up turns out to be one of the kindest, most selfless things you can do for someone.  And it isn’t only selfless.  At the beginning of my stay, my friend Lauren told me over the phone, “I know this seems like a drag, but someday, I promise you, you will look back and be grateful that you had this time…”

Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing, pgs. 179-180

Averted Vision

Such a contemplative thing to say:

Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that any deliberate campaign to achieve it is so misguided, is that it isn’t an obtainable goal in itself but only an after-effect.  It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to—by which I don’t mean ethically correctly but fully, consciously engaged in the business of living.  In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomenon familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes.  And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the real stars, those blinding cataclysms in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.

From Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing, pg. 218

Author Interview with Courtney Miller Santo

Elders often go unnoticed.  In your book, the elders of Kidron (and around the world if the clippings and news items within the novel come to mind) are central.  How did you come to write a story underlining people who are generally so unrecognized?  I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by elders for most of my life. One of the reasons I wrote this particular book is that none of the fiction families I read about had many of their grandparents, or great grandparents around and yet my experience growing up was one of being surrounded by people who not only had a few years on them, but were delightfully funny and interesting. Not that I’ve got anything against grandmothers who bake cookies or knit, but that wasn’t my experience.


Tell us about your research process, particularly how you developed multiple characters of varying ages.  Again, your characters weren’t exactly typical for contemporary fiction.  I was fortunate to have my own great-grandmother in my life until a few months after the book was published. She was 104 when she passed away and although in the book, Anna is a few years older, she is modeled very much on my own great-grandmother. The other women, who are older are also based on people in my family. If I needed to know what particular phrase an almost ninety year old woman would use, I just started a conversation with one of my relatives, or read their journals.

Courtney's Five Generations

The more difficult characters where those who were closer in age to my own mother. There’s always a barrier between mothers and daughters and the frankness that my grandmother’s talked to me isn’t the same. I also have an extraordinary group of women who I’ve come to know through my church community who were very valuable in that respect.  Are there elders, living or dead, who you believe we should remember?  Any notables for you?  I am fascinated by Jean Calment, who makes a brief appearance in the book and was in fact the oldest woman to have ever lived. But mostly when I visit with bookclubs and talk about this book, what I encourage people to do is to ask the elders in their lives to share their stories. Some people are lucky enough to still have grandparents and great grandparents living, but if that isn’t the case, look to your neighbors or your work community and start asking questions about their lives. I am particularly interested in stories beyond the typical where were you during a war, or a historical event. One question I find that always gets great (and sad stories) is who do you know who drowned. I believe that people live on through their stories. It is the way we echo through generations. Storytelling is vital to our identities.


You dealt with many things in your work, one of which was the way stories of our forebears are kept hidden, shared, remembered, rehearsed, or, in some cases, lost.  Choose one of the Keller women and give us a sense of something she’d want us to know.  What an amazing question! I always wanted Bets and her daughter Callie to have a conversation where they allowed themselves to be honest with each other. Bets in particular kept so much from her children—especially about their father and the type of relationship she had with him and that damaged Callie in ways I don’t think she understands. I always thought that those two in particular would have benefitted from an airing of grievances and secrets. I think that if Callie understood her parents and the secrets they had to keep that she’d have found love much sooner in her life and that might have changed what happened with Deb.


Courtney Miller SantoYou acknowledge the community of writers around you.  How did that community support you as you worked on your novel?  My writer’s group has to be some of the most insightful and encouraging people in the entire world. Throughout finishing this novel, we met monthly and each time I read a bit of the work, they found ways to push me to make it better. I also was lucky enough to have a fantastic mentor in Cary Holladay, whose own work I deeply admire. I always wanted to write so-called Southern fiction, which Cary does so well, but the rub of it is that because of my Western pedigree, all I could do was write bad imitations of southern stories. Cary helped me to find my own authentic voice. I also want to say that I have so many poets in my life who have helped me to learn the value of a single word among 100,000—in particular Heather Dobbins has been an incredible support to me.


What did you learn while writing?  What did you find out about families, aging, death, and life as you developed the book?  One of the biggest revelations that happened while I was writing this book is that I began to see my own mother as an individual. The more I spoke to my grandmother and great grandmother about their lives, the more I was able to see my mother as somebody other than my mother. I also have learned buckets about olive trees. They are incredible trees. I only wish I could figure out how to keep one alive. I’ve killed at least three. The other startling connection I made while researching this book is how many of mankind’s myths deal explicitly with aging and the idea of immortality. Every community has an idea of how to get past mortality—and yet scientifically we’ve sort of reached an end road of sorts.


Did you come across any notable remedies for aging?  There are more wives tales than remedies. Everybody ages, what you hope for is those genes that make you physically less old than your actual age. My great-grandmother could touch her toes until the day she died and yet for the last twenty years of her life, she had M&Ms and Mountain Dew for breakfast. That tells me it was mostly genetics that kept her flexible and the science backs that up. However there’s common sense nobody wants to hear it, but it’s true stuff that helps you if you don’t have extra long telomeres—basically keeping active and eating well.


What are you reading these days?  I’ve just started Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred Year House, which I adore and since I just wrapped up vacation, I recently finished Wolf Hall, a fabulous nonfiction book that tells the history of Paris through biographical vignettes, called The Parisians, and I devoured my daughter’s copy of Divergent on the plane ride home. I’ll be going to my twentieth high school reunion in a few weeks and have bought the Hurricane Sisters for the plane ride there.


How can readers support you and are you working on words you can tell us about briefly?  My second novel, THREE STORY HOUSE, comes out on August 19 and I’d love for anyone who enjoyed THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE to check it out (Anna makes a special cameo in the book). Set in Memphis, the book delves into the relationship between cousins who find their lives coming apart as they work to renovate a spite house. There’s going to be a fun contest starting August 28 where readers are invited to post their own versions of my cover on my facebook page at There will be prizes! I’d love to hear reader’s stories of their local spite houses.Olive Tree for CM Interview

Relationships of Accountability

I believe that anyone who has a responsibility for the spiritual guidance of others should be in a relationship of accountability with another for the sake of the people he or she guides, teaches, or preaches to.  Otherwise we are going to grow, if we grow at all, in a deformed shape that will be passed down to others.  I see such distortions frequently.  It is a biblical concept to be accountable to someone else.  Timothy was mentored by Paul, Paul by the disciples in Antioch.  Friedrich von Hügel, author and spiritual director, once wrote: “Behind every saint stands another saint.  That is the great tradition.  I never learnt anything myself by my old nose.”

From John Ackerman’s Listening to God (pg. 67).

Books That Speak For You: The Almighty Black P Stone Nation

I don’t remember who but I heard someone say how beneficial it was to read authors of one’s age, writers who grew up when you grew up.  Those writers saw some of the things you saw, began framing the world during the same time you did, and knew the language, phrases, monuments, and events you did.  I think of Jesmyn Ward’s work, especially Men We Reaped, and how it is the first book that says for me in her words what it meant to be born premature at six months (among too many other good reflections) and to be so mindful of those early days.  I came across another book I’m ashamed I didn’t learn of until 3 years after its publication that brought that statement to mind, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation.

Natalie Y. Moore and Lance Williams co-wrote this social history of Black Chicago.  Indeed it is as much as social history of Black Chicago as the city itself.  One never talks about a part of our city without, at the same time, talking about the whole.  In this book, Moore and Williams tell the story of Jeff Fort.  They use Fort’s life as a teen who emerges into a leader of one of the country’s strongest, most prominent gangs to discuss everything from identity, neighborhood development, politics, racism, poverty, and the relationship between religion and communities.

First Presbyterian Church, Early Meeting Place for Blackstone Rangers

First Presbyterian Church, Early Meeting Place for Blackstone Rangers

They trace Fort’s relationships and show how the charismatic but unlikely young man becomes a powerful, influential gang leader.  I learned about Jeff Fort’s life, how he started one of the most famous gangs in my adolescence, and connected the dots between his influence and the lives of gangsters back then and today.  Moore and Williams explain the various ways gangs have been talked about, employing pieces from the FBI, from pastors, and from law enforcement.  The authors also point to the roles prosecutors and journalists played in building a particular perspective (almost mythology) around Fort, Eugene Hairston (his co-leader of the BPSN), and similar people in the gang.

If you don’t like reminders of violence–or being able to sit in such reminders–this isn’t the book for you.  You won’t read a sugarcoated history of how good these gangsters were for the neighborhood.  But you will be surprised if you think gangs were/are all bad.

You’ll see up close how mixed and complex this gang was in relationship to Chicago; in relation to the black community which it saw itself as part of; in relation to other gangs which were their original enemy; and in relation to the dubious mayor (the one spoken of very poorly in my experience on the south side), old man Richard J. Daley.

If you’re interested in exploring the world of Black Chicago, what it meant for Black people to live in the city, for instance, between the Great Migration and the Civil Rights era, and the history of gangs in the country and in Chicago particularly, this is a great, accessible, easy-to-read primer.  But the book does more.

It acquaints you with some of the fundamental psychological reasons youth leaned toward gangs in the 80s and 90s, offering reminders of how youth are still youth with the same needs.  The writers also give a glimpse of how different gangs are these days and how much distance they see between the earlier gangs which developed in similar social conditions even if in a different political, national, and domestic environment.

There are some things which haven’t changed since Jeff Fort and Eugene Hairston met as teens in the Woodlawn neighborhood.  The federal government’s initiatives (i.e., wars) on poverty and drugs have hardly changed, though they have collected more cousins to join their ranks (Think of the current sentencing guidelines for drug possession of Blacks vs. Whites vis-a-vis the housing covenants of the 60s).  There are now wars on more things and in more places.  But the book opens up that earlier world when the wars started, if you will.

I am not satisfied with the book’s ending.  In some ways the book ends abruptly.  I think I wanted the authors to say more, to forecast more.  I remember thinking the same thing about Michelle Alexander’s troubling and moving and remarkable, The New Jim Crow.  For both books, in my still-naive hopefulness, I wanted the authors to paint a different picture, to suggest an alternative world (even historically), but of course, the writers were simply too good at telling their stories.  They were so good and precise, so truthful, that they left me aching for change.A City

I wasn’t in a gang.  So, in that way, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation doesn’t speak for me.  But what the book does is narrate portions of a journey I did negotiate.  It straddles the world of politics and religion and death and growing up, all of which were my life as a teen going from 103rd to 83rd, passing Julian on my way to Simeon to go to school, my Wednesdays and Saturdays going back and forth to rehearse and sing with the Soul Children.

It’s a book that helps me understand what it’s in my bones and what isn’t as I continue to find a home in Chicago.  It gives a glimpse of why Chicago is my city, my home, the place where (many of) my family resides.  I was not only born here.  I shared some of the experiences Moore and Williams recall with such clear, simple truth.

I hope they turn they gaze to some of our city’s other notables.  I can recommend a few subjects, but I think they already know who next can be subject to their collective intellect, care, wisdom, and words.