When the past expands

As a teacher, I have been using my Summer time to do a great deal of reading and research. The fiction works I have read are a mix of contemporary and those written in the 19th and 20th centuries – from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to Stephen King’s Carrie, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

I’ve done this for several reasons, and it’s all related to the nonfiction I am reading – James West Davidson’s A Little History of the United States, Ann Royston Blouse and Cynthia Schafer Mann’s What Lies Beneath: The Farms, Mills, and Towns Under Our Reservoirs, David McCullough’s 1776, Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life, and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions.

To better understand where we are in the present, I must better understand the origins of this strange and outrageous time in which we live.

Here’s the challenge we face. Our lives are in these micro time capsules buffered by twenty or so years on each side. No matter where we are in our existence, we think about where we are in relation to what has happened in the last few decades, and what we foresee in the coming 10 to 20 years. We are connected by overlapping generations that create this span of 40 years where we remember “the good old days” and think ahead for what we might want our children and grandchildren to be and inherit in a future that we hope still includes us.

This time capsule makes us outraged of what is happening in our lifetimes, in our present, and how all of that establishes some kind of new foundation for our children’s future.

We remember the past as always better; we are in shock of the present world in which we live; we are hopeful (and fearful) of the future that awaits our most immediate and youngest relatives.

Reading about our history – and more creative works from times that were before my 57 years here on Earth, gives me greater pause in how I understand and reflect on this present. Our contemporary films depicting an earlier era – Downton Abbey, Emma, and Mr. Malcolm’s List, to name a few – can lead us to believe in a slice of that world that we might find romantic, perhaps even idealistic.

That’s what these nonfiction works are helping me better understand: having a greater grasp of the events that happened in the last 250 years expands the space of experience in that micro time capsule to capture the lineage connecting this “historical” event to the next, to the next, to today.

To help me appreciate this even more, I have started to dig into the genealogical roots of my own family. Suddenly, everything is more relevant, more immediate. Present Time includes my ancestors from World War I, The Civil War, The American Revolution, Their landfall in New York in 1602 from The Netherlands or, later, Barbados.

The weaving of our past and present allows us to embrace who we are today, with the DNA of our ancestors who have fought, survived, and even thrived through very difficult times. It is in us to do this very thing: Survive.

So writes Delia Owens in Crawdads:

“In Nature – out yonder where the crawdads sing – these ruthless-seeming behaviors [of a she-fox abandoning an offspring under great stress] actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. and on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive – way back yonder.”

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens, pages 237-238

This cross-weaving of history, fiction, and genealogy gives me greater perspective to understand who we are, where we are, and why. Perhaps it will help me, as well, understand how to navigate through these challenging times and effect change that offers greater hope beyond our micro time capsules of existence.

Returning to Cold Rock

In 2011, I finished writing, and published, my first novel. Actually, it was my second novel-length manuscript; the first one, Night Terrors, has still yet to see any public light. That was way back in 1992 when I finished that one.

30 years ago!

As you can imagine, my writing style has evolved quite a bit, and to bring Night Terrors to any kind of publishable level, it would require a serious rewrite. I’ve tried to do that on several occasions, but failed each time because the original writing was so, well, flat.

Cold Rock, written and published 20 years later, is more on the early edges of where I am now as a writer. It’s got a good strong voice, and for the most part, it works.

Except the ending.

When I was deep in revision, I received feedback from two individuals, whom I both trusted, that could not have been further apart in how the end of the story might be revised. After considering both options, I went with the one that made the most sense to me at the time.

What I neglected to embrace, however, was a third choice: my own revision of the ending. Instead, I felt, for some reason, that it was either suggestion no. 1 or suggestion no. 2; there were no other options.

Now, 11 years later, I’m picking option no. 3 and finally writing the ending that I think is more perfectly aligned with two areas: 1, the main character’s journey arc; and 2, the intimations of the supernatural throughout. Yes, it’s a pretty scary book at times, and I’m going to run more with that and less with the creepy priest angle that still makes me uncomfortable.

All things considered, this is going to be a quick rewrite, and we’ll be publishing the revised edition under The JAR Writers’ Collective “Vault” collection, maybe as early as this summer.

Here’s the thing, though: since publishing Fossil Five and now Prisms in the last two years, it is absolute fun to rework an old book and make it better for all of you. I hope you like it. I’ll be sure to let you know when it releases.

Back to edits. See you all tomorrow.

Watershed moments

Sunday, 13 March 2022

I grew up on the shores and waters of the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed here in Towson. First, it was all about the picnics my family enjoyed in the wooded area just off of Dulaney Valley Road. The site closed when I was in my late teens because of fights and unruly behavior that kept breaking out in what was always a sanctuary for me. Now, it is a parking area for hunters and walkers.

When I got a little older, my father started taking me on long walks in the woods along narrow footpaths that would lead to obscure shores where the fish were supposed to be plentiful. Sometimes they were, especially the bluegills and the crappie. We even caught a bass or two if were were lucky. But that wasn’t what those long walks in the woods were all about; it was about spending time with my dad in those quiet moments, singing little songs to the fishies to jump on the bait so we could reel them in.

Soon, I graduated to being old enough to take a boat out on the water, and we fished some of the hidden fishing holes that were supposed to be secret. Here’s where we caught the odd fish: sometimes a carp, sometimes a northern pickerel, and always a good laugh cracking stupid jokes that no one would ever understand.

As I became more independent, I would often go to Loch Raven with friends to hike, or enjoy the sunset, or just to get away from the world for a few hours. It was still my sanctuary, and we savored those quiet moments together.

Now, as I return to the trails and shores as an older man, now that my children are all nearly grown, and now that I have endured the experiences of loss and hardship, this watershed brings its own watershed moments in my life.

Today, we stopped by to take some photos, and as I meandered through the mucky trails and brittle brambles, I realized that Loch Raven has been there for me in so many turning points of my life. And that’s true for so many others, too. As you walk along the shores, you can’t help but see memorials, or initials etched in trees, or sacred grounds where lives have been lost tragically.

Just a few years ago, I happened upon a car where somebody had died, and as they removed her body from the car, her white hand slipped from their grip, and it offered me – us- a final wave goodbye, a salute to all Loch Raven has provided, perhaps, or a reminder to cherish what we do have – what we have always had – in and around this watershed we drive through nearly every day of our lives.

A watershed, by definition, includes all of the surrounding area around a body of water that captures runoff and contributes to the overall ecosystem that reservoir, or river, or bay, creates.

I can’t help but think that we comprise a watershed area, too, in our friendships, our relationships, our neighbors, our everyone that matters in our lives. If we saw our connections being as vital to our own ecosystems as the watershed area is around Loch Raven, or Chesapeake Bay, or any other body of water, then maybe we would do a better job of taking care of each other.

It’s so easy to neglect that, as it is easy to neglect the land around Loch Raven. But it has been a lifetime sanctuary of memories and experiences to so many, as we have been to each other in our own communities.

Watershedding over watersheds. I appreciate the water a little more today, as I appreciate you a little more, too.

A song of myself

Saturday, 12 March 2022, 0643

The rain has been falling most of the night, and even though we are nearing mid-March, heavy snow will fall within the next few hours, bringing up to five inches in some areas north and west of Interstate 95.

This is our home, where variations of seasons blur the lines of winter, spring, summer, or fall. There are no absolutes; only winds that bring cold, driving rains into the heart of sun-filled days. Like all Marylanders who have chosen this to be their home, we have come to embrace it.

This, too, is the place where I call home, both within and among.

I am the weather of our region. The seasons within blur their own lines with no absolutes. The song of myself is a pastel blend of snow and sun, wind and rain, weaving and whirling a good long life of weathered experiences that bring me to today, where the rain has been falling most of the night, and snow is on its way.

Last night, I shared on social media that I had made the decision to change the entire focus of this space called The Baltimore Writer. Years ago, in 2019, I wrote this post intimating my hopes of doing just this, but I wasn’t ready yet. The idea was there, but not the full understanding of what I needed to do. And maybe more importantly, why. When I wrote that post, I was just months away from publishing Fossil Five, and I had great expectations for what it might become, and how far of a readership it might earn. I was trying to do too many things at one time: launch a writing career and be a more authentic artist and human. I got the order mixed up, though, and I put the platform before the person.

I remember talking to my brother Warren about such things when he was struggling between his art and what he wanted out of life. I told him long ago that I thought he should focus on his art, and let everything else take care of itself. It will follow.

I guess now I am listening to my own words, the song of myself is emerging more authentically, and I have found this space to be the place to call, humbly, my home. These are my “Leaves of Rus.”

The wind howls louder as the rain drives more urgently against my window, a repetitive tat-tat-tat that reminds me of the words I spoke to my brother so many years ago.

This is the song of myself.

I am home.


Writing Prompt #5: Unconventional Relationships

I share these prompts to encourage writers and creatives of all ages to journal uninhibitedly on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. 

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. Write, sketch, paint, or compose your response in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty. 

If you do share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response. 

Writing Prompt #5: Write, reflect, or create an original work on the most unconventional relationship you have ever experienced, past or present. You define what “unconventional relationship” means for your response, as this may be based on society’s rules, or yours. Regardless, to you: it is unconventional!

My Response: Prior to the world of global connectivity via the internet, my relationships were more about the environment in which I lived more than anything else. When I was growing up, it was all about our neighborhood – our street specifically. Schoolmates that were comparable in age but lived a few blocks away might as well have lived in another state. Neighborhoods were so territorial then, that when I dated a girl from “The Oaks” just about a quarter mile down Joppa Road, I was told by some bigger guy in that ‘hood that they were going to “introduce my face to my locker” in high school if I didn’t stop dating Donna.

Jets and Sharks kind of crazy stuff going on, even though I was not – nor was I ever – in a gang.

Later, when I began teaching and moved to Calvert County, my relationships were centered on Chesapeake Bay. I was so fortunate to teach several of Tom Clancy’s children, and so I spent time on the shores of Chesapeake and its tributaries talking about writing with the world’s bestselling writer at the time.

That connection would have never happened had I not been there, on the water, in that space.

Now, even though I am settled in Towson with my family and in Ellicott City with my students, some of my strongest relationships are with Jodi and Adam, two incredible human beings who just happen to live in Australia – a place I’ve never been, and two people I have never met “in real life.”

As much as I rail on the internet and technology (and if you don’t know that about me, give Fossil Five a good read and you’ll see where I stand on the digital world wiping away our human-to-human relationships), my relationship with Jodi and Adam is as close as any of the relationships I have known in Calvert County, Towson, or Ellicott City.

We connect through words, art, music in such a collaborative way that is stronger than any of the countless hours I spent on Chesapeake Bay sailing, or fishing the waters, or wading through low tide finding blue crabs shedding their shells for a good soft crab sandwich later that evening. What we have transcends all of that through mutual respect for each other as artists, individuals, and spiritual manifestations of something bigger that exists all around us.

Our 14- and sometimes 16-hour time differences are perfect for working on each other’s drafts, or mulling over ideas to be shared over our “even-morns.”

In this unconventional relationship, somebody is always awake, watching over our words, pondering art and life and the world that spins so wildly around us.

But it is one world, and we are held together by the unconventional bond we have created regardless if the world tilts off its axis every once in a while. Like the pull of the moon, we ebb and flow this journey together, having never met, and never having to.

Writing Prompt #4: Energy. 1.20.2022

I share these prompts to encourage writers and creatives of all ages to journal uninhibitedly on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. 

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. Write, sketch, paint, or compose your response in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty. 

If you do share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response. 

Writing Prompt #4: Write, reflect, or create an original work on the energy held in a seemingly inanimate object, such as a rock, a handwritten letter, a pressed flower.

My Response

For just about 33 years now, I’ve cherished a book of spiritual essays by Joni Eareckson Tada called Secret Strength. A student gifted it to me in the days following my father’s death in 1989, and I leaned on the lessons Joni shared in my toughest hours.

Joni (pronounced “Johnny”) grew up in Baltimore and lived a very active life until a catastrophic diving accident in Chesapeake Bay in 1967 caused damage to her spine, and she became a quadriplegic as a result. After battling anger and depression, she devoted her life to lifting others, and she is still doing it today.

That book, an inanimate object itself, carried great energy from the words she wrote. Just holding it in my hands – even decades later – brings me strength.

Even more powerful than the book, though, is what my student wrote on the inside cover, and the flower she pressed there to remind me of how everlasting beauty and hope can be.

Now, 33 years later, that flower (and those words) are filled with the same energy that they possessed on the first day I opened the book to find such a timeless gift.

What does that tell me? What does that remind all of us?

That it is possible to capture the energy of a single moment, bottle it in some inanimate object that miraculously cues the heart to beat a little stronger, to pulse the emotional moments we experienced so long ago as if we were there once more.

A book, a flower, and words pressed into the inside cover hold for me the energy of hope, of kindness, and of timeless compassion in a time when I was hurting greatly. Today, I still open that well-worn, gently loved book to return to a time where I was given a touch of secret strength that I would get through.

And I did.

And I do.  

Writing Prompt #3: Silence. 1.19.2022

I share these prompts to encourage writers and creatives of all ages to journal uninhibitedly on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. 

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. Write, sketch, paint, or compose your response in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty. 

If you do share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response. 

Writing Prompt #3: Write, reflect, or create an original work about a time when the sound of silence was deafening.

My Response

My first thought is, most immediately, the late afternoon hours on September 11, 2001, when no planes filled the air and the roads were empty – a world stunned into silence as we all collectively held our breaths.

That was a deafening silence that we all felt, though. Anybody who was old enough on that day to hear the sorrowful sounds of silence will never forget it.

Personally, however, all I can think about right now is a sound that my generation is hearing all too often: the deafening silence that follows the news of the passing of a loved one.

The news is shared, but the words begin to drop off, as if falling from a cliff, word by word, into some void where they are enveloped – smothered – in a dark and heavy fog. And in those seconds that follow, when the final words fall into that abyss, we all feel the deafening silence of sorrow that weighs so heavily on our hearts. We don’t know what to say, even if we really could or remembered how to. Are there any words that could ever fill that space?

The sound of the weight, like some kind of jet engine on overdrive, courses through your veins, inflating them with fear, dread, grief.


Invariably, though, despite the heavy silence that lingers longer than we can comprehend, it is what rises from that deep, heavy fog:

Shared memories, laughter, that last smile or embrace that held there in the light, a lingering moment treasured for reasons we could not yet understand.

But now we do. Now we hold tightly to that lingering moment.

Yes. We are beginning to know that deafening silence too, too much. But we also find new comfort in these memories that fill the silence with sounds that imprint our hearts forever with what we will remember, hold dearly close, until our own last hours on this earth.

Writing Prompt #2: Weather. 1.18.2022

I share these prompts to encourage writers and creatives of all ages to journal uninhibitedly on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. 

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. Write, sketch, paint, or compose your response wildly in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty. 

If you do share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response. 

Writing Prompt #2: Write, reflect, or create an original work based on a time when the weather changed your life.

My Response: Specific weather events have changed all of our lives. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, hurricanes and nor’easters are common life-changers for most of us. But for me, it was never a named storm that changed my life (agreed, though, that Super Storm Sandy in 2012 was pretty bad); instead, it was the weather that blew off the Susquehanna River – a trib of Chesapeake Bay – and found its way to our small cabin in River Hills, Pennsylvania when I was a child.

And, just as powerful as the storms might have been that moved in, keeping us tucked in on the long screened-in porch as the rain moved through the heavy leaves like a steady chorus of soft, melodic rain sticks, the memories we made as a family were what really changed me.

Everything was different at the cabin. It was my father’s haven away from the world of work, the mundane grind of suburban living. In that small plot of land between a bass-stocked pond and acres of corn fields, the rains that kept us inside did not matter to me at all.

The cabin’s interior was one large, “great room” divided thinly by a half-wall that separated the living and sleeping spaces. In the front, facing the woods that filled the sloping hill that led to the large pond, was the porch; in the back was a small dining table and kitchenette that looked out over the fields harvested annually by local farmers. It was a simple space, but rainy days brought us closer together playing cards, building fires in the fireplace, and just listening to the storms roll in and roll out in a seamless peace that could not be found at home in Baltimore.

[Quick Reflection: I’ve never written about this before and will definitely expand on this later in a stronger draft. I never realized that the storms that forced us inside actually created an opportunity for us to be a stronger family in a way that never really seemed possible in our home in Baltimore. More to come for this one, for sure.]

Writing Prompt #1: Courage. 1.17.2022

Today, I begin sharing daily writing prompts to encourage writers of all ages to journal on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. If you wish to share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response.

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. A few weeks ago, I subbed for one of the art teachers at my school. In that group, one student emerged and shared with me that she paints a new picture every day. When the bell rang and I moved along to my own classroom, she tracked me down and gave me her daily painting: a beautiful lobster that she painted in about 40 minutes. Paint your response in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty.

Writing Prompt #1: Reflect on a time when you displayed great courage when the world was not watching. 

My Response: One of my colleagues was quick to post a comment earlier today when I shared this prompt. She alluded to the profession of teaching, and having the courage to show up every day and do the unthinkable, the inexplainable, in teaching in such challenging times when most of the world does not understand what we are doing to teach effectively, to push away all of the noise that is around us, and – most especially – the doubters and naysayers that question our profession on a daily basis.

That part – the questioning of our profession – is something that I have endured in these 35 years of being in a classroom with my students. In fact, I was fighting for the prestige of the profession when I was still 21 and in college, arguing passionately against fellow education majors who were in it until they figured out what they really wanted to do.

Like it was some kind of job that held a space until something better came along.

So to Frances, I say yes. The world has its opinion of what we do, but the courage you and my colleagues display on a daily basis, mostly when the world is not watching, is appreciated and recognized.

For me, it comes down to those small chats with students at the end of class, or in that brief period of time between the last bell and when the buses pull out for the day. Talk about courage. So many of these students have been holding that fear of talking with an adult, or gathering the courage to share a concern, for the entire day. That’s somewhere around 16 bells shuffling them off to other classes or to lunch as they grapple with a dizzying shift in content in those 7 hours.

They display great courage every day, and nobody really knows it except for themselves and the teachers and counselors and coaches and administrators and SROs they talk to.

As the recipient of those chats, I am incredibly grateful that I am with colleagues who continue to show up, continue to listen, continue to hold space for our courageous students who need us to be there for them.

But for me? Courage? When the world is not watching? Well, it is in my art, my writing that takes place in the space beyond the public eye as I sort through the ideas, the philosophies, the wishes, the hopes that I might be able to bring to all of you one day in a form that is best received, best served for a world wandering, reaching, hoping for many of the same things as me, and you, despite what we may be, or share openly, with the world.

I am no more courageous than you.

And that, my friends, brings me strength and energy to carry on, to show up, to share authenticity with the world, or even in classroom 203 on a weekday afternoon at 2:15pm.

Now Accepting Pre-Orders for 2732 Prisms of Love-Stained Light

Rus VanWestervelt’s latest work, 2732 Prisms of Love-Stained Light, is scheduled to launch worldwide on 21 December 2021, but you can pre-order your copy today through December 15 at a reduced price. 

Benefits of preordering include:

– Personalized copy signed by the author

– Price reduced to just $11 for hand-delivered copies

– Shipping only $4 for mailed copies

– Special invitation to launch celebration in January 2022

Preorder your copy HERE.

From the Back Cover:

Prisms is about the life of a teacher, a writer, a simple human, shared in the hybrid form of a collage essay that reflects and refracts epiphanies borne out of moments of regret, joy, tragedy, fear and love. It is a review of the colorful experiences of life and their re-assembly into something more powerful. In each segment, we come to understand ourselves, and each other, with greater compassion, kindness and grace in our own transformation. 

Prisms is a literary binding and fashioning of fact with a touch of fiction, illusion, dreaming, and reimagined memory. 

VanWestervelt invites you to witness a statement of existence, just like your own – unimaginable without the contribution of each hue-touched shard, that reveals an abstract map of individual evolution, illuminated through love-stained light.

Advance Praise for Prisms:

An artfully composed, complex tapestry of interwoven memories with vivid characters. Poetry, philosophy, prose. Powerful pieces that will linger in your soul and pop up later, in moments when you need to be reminded.

~Cara Moulds, Midlife Women’s Coach

Rus VanWestervelt in his, “2732 Prisms of Love-Stained Light” offers more than an essay collage of Love and Hope, it can inspire us to explore our own healing collages. Rus is a  little bit of Thoreau, Matt Haig and Mark Nepo: from pain comes transcendence.

~Carol Reed, Educator, Poet, Advocate for the Arts

The intensity of Rus VanWestervelt’s writerly gaze splinters the visible world into glittering fragments that stare unflinching into light’s–and life’s–center. In the interstitial space between memory and narrativity, material melts down to immaterial, making a cathedral of the body, amplified by love and lit by memory. The undercurrent of fear and a desire for safety is a tender alchemy, a catalyst for the terror and joy of pure being.

~Suzanne Gold, Hair Club

Preorder your copy HERE.

Questions? Interested in having Rus join you for an upcoming book club meeting or for a public reading? Contact him directly at rus@rusvanwestervelt.org.