Some people are raised by doting parents in a loving home where they have a safe place to grow, to belong. Others come from homes broken by an absentee parent, hurtful words, regrets, promises not kept or a myriad of other sins. In All My Belongings (Abingdon Press/May 6, 2014/ISBN: 978-1426749728/$14.99), author Cynthia Ruchti tells the story of a young woman who feels out of place within her own family and must learn to live in the shadow of guilt and shame that haunts her as a result of her father’s crimes. A new life and a new identity can’t free her from a past that refuses to go away.
Q: Your books — both fiction and non-fiction — tend to have a strong personal tie to them. What from your own personal experiences do you bring to All My Belongings?
The heart of the author comes out in everything he or she writes. My books are a blend of emotions or experiences I’ve known and a heightened empathy for friends and family who’ve walked these paths. From those very real challenges, I draw on imagination to create stories that aren’t afraid to tackle tough subjects, but with what I hope is an embracing and bracing tenderness and compassion. That’s definitely true with All My Belongings. While I didn’t have the main character’s embarrassment about her parents and where/who she came from, I’ve known others whose families make their lives miserable.
Where I do connect deeply with the story is caregiving for someone in her final days of life. My mother was what we call “actively dying” for four years and entered a residence hospice for what we all assumed were the final two or three days of her life. She endured another nine months of the dying process before she went Home. All she craved was my time. Her need seemed so familiar. When I was a child, she worked nights and slept days. It took a toll on her, on all of us. Her devotion to nursing was strong, and she was good at it. I didn’t always understand or appreciate her exhaustion or why she couldn’t attend a school function or have the kind of time for me I hoped for. I knew she loved me, but I craved her presence. Then, in the end, that’s all she wanted from me. I know I’m not alone in having had to work through and set aside my past longings in order to give her what her heart needed. Celebrating the tender moments and loving through the ugliness of the natural processes of dying made an indelible impression on me. Dying is an inescapable part of living. Figuring out how to do it well, whether the person leaving the earth or the one left behind, is an intricate dance that is beautiful when mastered, but clumsy when the lessons are ignored.
Q: The lead character, Becca, struggles with feeling like she’s never really belonged anywhere. Isn’t that something we all deal with at some time or another? Is there anything that makes Becca’s situation different than most?
Women make up the majority of my readership. I have a theory that we women never completely leave junior high. We weave in and out of experiences that challenge our sense of belonging. Sometimes we feel disenfranchised, even in a marriage or with our nuclear family. Work situations can throw us into another cauldron of confusion about where we fit. As readers take Becca’s journey with her, they’ll find that our place to belong doesn’t always look like we thought it would. Our assumptions get trumped by the surprises into which we feel our soul settling. “Ahhh. This is it. This is where I belong.”
Sometimes as we gain from what we survive, we discover what we were seeking was ours all along, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Our life strips away the distractions so we see the One who created a belonging place for us that can’t be taken away by how we feel or what happens to us or where we came from.
We’re all misfits, in some way — at church, at home, in our neighborhood, among our friends, in our extended family. There’s something about us that creates a sense of restlessness on some level, even when life is perking along. We find ways to adjust around our “misfitness.” The word “achieve” is interesting applied to belonging. I think in many ways it isn’t a pursuit as much as it is a discovery. Discovering where we fit in God’s scheme makes the other puzzle pieces fit for all of us.
Q: Have you ever had to separate yourself from a family member or friend because of something that happened in the past?
I’ve known people who have had to, but I haven’t personally been in that position. I come from an exceptional family history. Throughout the years I’ve listened to the heartbreaking stories of others who were abandoned, ignored or neglected, and whose parents acted as if they had no children even though they did.
Q: There are a number of ways you could have written about a young woman trying to escape the sins of her father. What made you choose the crime of euthanasia?
The numbers of novels dealing with physical or sexual abuse are many. But sometimes what makes us ashamed of our past isn’t related to that kind of abuse or takes abuse to yet another despicable level. I wanted the story to explore what it‘s like to have a parent’s reputation taint not just a daughter’s life, but the community’s. I needed the character to wrestle with something different from other books on the market, and yet the emotions are in many ways the same as any kind of barrier between the heart of a child and the heart of a parent.
In this case, her father’s acts had a more far-reaching effect on others, not only in what he did, but the attention on the trial and the press, all of which made it more difficult to escape the spotlight. Her father’s choices went against her own convictions, but how would she respond when those convictions were put to the ultimate test?
Q: For most Christians euthanasia is a very black-and-white issue. Do you personally feel there is ever an area of gray?
We assume we have it all figured out. There’s criminal euthanasia — for personal gain, either financially or for some other twisted reason. There’s involuntary euthanasia — where the perpetrator believes he or she is doing the right thing in ending a tortured life, but against the wishes of the person killed. Then there’s voluntary euthanasia — when the patient is involved in the decision-making.
We may have our feet planted firmly on the side that none of the above is acceptable. I didn’t include this subplot to present an essay on the evils of euthanasia, but to spark conversation about why we believe the way we do. For me, it created a framework against which I could examine what else is involved in decisions like these. What kind of pain presses people to even consider euthanasia? And how can we condemn those who wrestle with the issue, especially those who have sat at the bedside of a terminal loved one in extreme, relentless distress?
Personally, I believe our default option has to be letting God decide the length of our days. I have witnessed such indescribable beauty, even in the hard days at the end of someone’s life, and I wouldn’t want to grieve over the tenderness missed in cutting that time short.
Q: Not only did Becca feel guilt by association due to her father’s actions, but bore the guilt of reporting his crimes to authorities. What are some ways we can deal with the various kinds of guilt we bear in our lives?
Guilt isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it serves as a warning to us that prevents bad choices in the future. Sometimes it presses us to ask forgiveness and re-establish a broken relationship, or make restitution for a wrong we’ve done. That’s a sorrow (or a guilt) that leads to repentance, as the Bible says.
But when guilt is unwarranted or we’re bearing guilt vicariously for someone else’s deeds, then we are carrying around a weight we weren’t meant to carry, and it threatens to bend our emotional spines into permanent disfigurement. Sorting through reasonable versus unreasonable guilt is a first step.
Guilt can become a label. Not only do we have to remove the label intentionally, we need to ensure it doesn’t become a tattoo. Guilt can serve a purpose, but after that purpose is served, there’s no option other than to discard it.
The words come easily. The process can be emotionally taxing.
Q: All My Belongings addresses caregiving and the responsibility of spouses and children. Do you believe caregiving is something inherent or something we learn? Does how we are parented as children affect how compassionate we are toward others?
Personality traits affect our caregiving abilities. Some seem gifted for it. Others are as awkward in caregiving as a kangaroo on stilts. No matter where we are on the spectrum, we can learn a more graceful and grace-filled caregiving. Insecurities can keep us from being a natural caregiver, but we can grow in the practice as we observe someone who is elegant at it. Even if our first attempts are clumsy, we can catch onto the rhythm of it, if our heart’s in the right place and we’re humble students of the process.
Q: In All My Belongings, the strongest victories came from situations that look completely bleak and hopeless, yet the characters press on. How is that a reflection of life outside the pages of a novel?
The most memorable moments and the seasons with the strongest impact on my own character have been the ones that challenged me and called for a depth of courage I didn’t know I had. Losing someone I loved. Dealing with a traumatic diagnosis. Knee-rattling concern over a loved one’s choices. Upheavals in routine.
Some of the characters in All My Belongings adopt the phrase “guacamole!” to underscore the truth that some things in life are even better after they’re pulverized. Tracing back through the years, we can probably all point to times when we discovered a depth of meaning behind that statement. Life can mash us or tenderize us, depending on our response to its challenges.
Q: How does forgiveness impact parent-child relationships even in adulthood?
Sometimes we outgrow or overcome the resentments, embarrassments, and hurts we experience in childhood . . . even those natural to the best of homes. But unforgiveness between parents and their children can utterly poison their adult relationships. What could be more heartbreaking than parents and grown kids unable to connect, harboring old grudges or vindictiveness over old sins? A friend of mine suffered at the hand of an abusive step-father. Because she determined to be generous with forgiveness, throughout the years his heart softened. Those in-between years weren't easy for her, but by God's grace, she kept a firm grip on her commitment to forgive and love whether he deserved it or not. The relationship they have now is the kind of step-father/step-daughter bond others wish they could know. It's almost become a comedy routine to think of holidays and other family gatherings and assume the dysfunctions will create the stories told after the fact. Forgiveness can change those stories to something soul-satisfying and God-pleasing.
Q: What is the one spiritual lesson you hope readers will walk away with after the last chapter of All My Belongings?
Finding where we belong is less about a place or a reputable heritage and more about a faith that forms the foundation of all other belonging.