Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A morning with Suzanne Strempek Shea


Today we are delighted to share an in-depth profile of Suzanne Strempek Shea, Bay Path Writer-in-Residence and workshop leader of our MFA summer creative writing seminar in Ireland. This beautifully written portrait was created by graduating MFA student Susan Abello as an assignment in her "Special Topics in Creative Nonfiction" course, following an inspiring course in "Writing the Personal Profile" with Mieke Bomann.  We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.  


Suzanne
by Susan Abello (MFA ’16)

If I wrote a novel, Suzanne Strempek Shea would make an ideal heroine. She’s got that enviable hair, thick long waves of silver with a streak of white that falls along her slender face. I can see her in the cover illustration, maybe standing on one of the craggy green cliffs of the Blasket Islands, staring out over the raging sea, with that hair whipping around her shoulders. She might be wearing a flowing red skirt that the wind has drawn tight against her long thin frame. It would be a challenge to feature a complex character like her, a writer of novels and nonfiction, a woman who beats breast cancer and then writes a memoir about that experience. A woman who also travels to a small village in Africa, to write about a clinic there. A character whose passions drive her to fight for causes that she learns about because she lives her life intensely attuned and connected to the humanity around her, with an ear to the ground and her heart in her hand. A character who tirelessly gives of herself in the way she knows best, by informing the world about what’s important. A character who has reporting in her bones and storytelling in her soul.

Suzanne isn’t a fictional character, though. She’s flesh and blood and waiting for me this morning at Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse sanctuary that is another one of her passions. It’s just down the street from her home in the town where she was born and raised, Palmer, Mass. I find her behind the stables with a pitchfork in one hand and an axe in the other. She wears a red knit Peruvian cap. It has white fur trim and ear-flaps from which pompoms dangle and bounce on the collar of her black bomber jacket, the jacket she likes because it was her father’s, and because it’s warm. Gloveless, she uses the axe to break the ice on the surface of the water in one of the large tin tubs where the draft horses come to drink. “I’ve chipped it away once and it’s already frozen again,” she says with a smile.

Suzanne is a volunteer at the farm. You can find her here in any kind of weather. She’s always wanted a horse of her own; her husband Tommy (another award winning writer) even gave her one, once upon a time, but she lost it. Yes, that’s right, Suzanne’s horse ran away, never to be seen again. “My friends won’t even let me watch their purses after that,” she says. But here at the farm she can still get her horse-fix, and also fulfill that unstoppable urge she has to bring attention to a good cause.

She introduces me to a few of her friends, Mario and Ponch and Foxy. They are big-boned, much larger than the average riding horse. Their chests and hindquarters are thickly muscled. Many of them have beautiful cuffs of feathering fur that cascades over their giant hooves, hooves that are as big or bigger than dinner plates. When these horses move, the earth moves. I feel it up through my gut and I can’t help but feel a sort of awe for them, and for Suzanne too, because she handles them with such ease.

After she feeds the giants, she and the farm’s only two employees bring them out to the big ring where they will have space to run and play. Suzanne walks comfortably among them like a mother with her own children. She pats them, coaxes them, pushes them along, laughing when they stubbornly disobey. It’s frosty this morning, somewhere near zero degrees in what we call an arctic blast here in New England. The sky is gray and the air crisp and dry, the smell of hay and manure a bit less pungent because my nose is frozen. The horses don’t seem to mind the cold. I wonder if they know they have been saved by this place, by people like Suzanne. They file into the big ring and once the gate is closed behind the last straggler, Suzanne puts away her tools and we head off to her house.

She lives with Tommy of course, in a white Cape nestled atop a snowy hill. We drive up a winding drive that I can only imagine might be lined with day-lilies and foxglove when the season is right, but now is banked by walls of white. Ice crunches under our tires. Inside, I am greeted by wagging tails and nudging noses. Bisquick, a nine-year-old English setter and Tiny, affectionately known as Ten-buck Tiny from the Palmer Pound, who is a sixteen-year-old beagle mixed with dachshund, sniff my horsey smelling pant legs and have ruled me friend, not foe. Suzanne guides me through rooms with walls painted in colors that should be given names like Harvest Moon, Morning Glow and Spring Meadow, the colors of our New England life that one must focus on in times like these, in times when the mercury dips below comfortable and into intense. But it is warm inside Suzanne’s house.

In the dining room we sit at a wooden table covered with an orange wool tablecloth that Suzanne tells me was her mother’s. “She used this when I was a kid,” Suzanne tells me, as she pours hot tea into fat ceramic mugs and brings a basket of soft snowflake rolls in from the kitchen. There is hummus, Irish cheese, plump red grapes and my favorite, thick-sliced sweet-potato chips, to snack on as we warm ourselves by clasping our hands around our mugs, the sweet smelling tea thawing our frozen noses. Bisquick puts his soft face on my leg. He is meringue like wisps of white fur with specs of brown, he is soft and gentle and he looks at me with the sweet eyes of a well-loved boy.

We move to the living room where the honey-colored wood floors and the gray marble fireplace contrast nicely with the graphic print of blue and gold and red and green of the fabric on the sofa. The art is mostly originals collected over the years, some things purchased and some given to them by artist friends. Among the treasured pieces that fit into the “painted by a friend” category is a portrait of Tommy on his mother’s front porch, he’s just a boy and he’s wearing his Our Lady of Hope baseball uniform. A small oil painting made by Suzanne’s mother, depicting a sitting woman reading a book, is set upon the windowsill and leans on the cold glass pane. I suspect that Suzanne, the beautiful writer and reader of books, must have been her mother’s muse for that piece, if not as a model then certainly for the reverence of reading that the painting emotes.

We sit at the desk that Suzanne and Tommy share. Two great writers and there I am. I am overwhelmed. The desk itself is as unpretentious as its owners, a card table actually, adorned with a lively tablecloth of red paisley swirls over a green background. I can imagine them there, gray heads bowed over laptops in the sun filled room, the music of Bob Dylan or The Saw Doctors playing in the background as they type. Suzanne speaks with a soft voice, asking many questions even though I have come to do the asking. She wonders about my kids, my writing, how I met my husband. Her curiosity is boundless. I see now her reporter skills at work, her natural instinct to do the asking, honed from years at the desk of the Springfield Republican and made sharper as she delved into the writing of books. She is full of stories, and humor and pain and love, and I am listening.

“I loved working at the paper,” she said. “It’s like Tommy said, it’s a public service for which you can get paid. You’re really going out into the world and telling people what’s going on.” Suzanne’s hands dance as she speaks, a band of gold circles her slender ring finger, and although her hands are hard working they are graceful, elegant.  “Someone might want to know about this thing…or that could be helpful to someone…like the farm. I thought, no one knows about this. I’ll write about this. It’s fascinating!”

Much more than fascinating, Suzanne’s topics, the things that get her attention, are also things that she comes to care deeply about. From an article about Blue Star Equiculture that can be seen in this fall’s issue of Yankee Magazine, to another soon to be published essay for Down East Magazine about her once-upon-a-time college-town of Portland (where she attended Portland School of Art to study photography), Suzanne informs her readers about what they might not know, and perhaps what they should know, about what’s in their own backyard.

Sometimes though, she goes way beyond the backyard and in those cases her essays have grown into longer works, into books, like her latest, in which Suzanne takes her readers to the lakeside village of Cape Maclear, in Malawi, Africa. With a title like This is Paradise: An Irish mother’s grief, an African village’s plight and the medical clinic that brought fresh hope to them both, you know you’re in for a moving story and Suzanne doesn’t let us down. Somehow along the way, her words draw us into her circle of concern, into the sad and yet powerfully inspirational tale of a woman who starts a medical clinic in Cape Maclear, to honor the memory of her son who died there. It’s a book about healing on many levels, a mother’s healing, a village’s healing (quite literally) and a greater societal healing of sorts.

Speaking of societal healing, Suzanne recently published another book, Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of the Christian Faith, in which she takes her reader on a tour of Christian places of worship throughout the country. Raised Catholic, Suzanne tells me that she was disillusioned with the church when the scandal of the pedophile priests and the cover up of their guilt came to light in the late 1980s. She found herself distanced from the church that she had believed in as a child. Her husband, Tommy, wrote extensively and compassionately for the Springfield Republican about one of the victims of abuse (and murder in this case) and through it all, Suzanne’s once strong connection with the church had been shaken.

Another factor in Suzanne’s shift away from the church was her need for privacy when facing her battle with breast cancer. Perhaps it’s that New England stoicism, that private, uncomplaining and rugged spirit that living in this environment breeds, but Suzanne began to seek the solace of God only when the church itself was empty and she could be alone with her prayers.

It wasn’t until 2005, Suzanne writes in Sundays in America, when she found herself fascinated by what she saw as she watched the televised funeral procession of Pope John Paul II in April of that year. What caught her eye, and her heart, was the devotion on the faces of the people as they mourned for the Pope that they had loved so dearly. She found herself longing to understand that kind of devotion, that sense of belonging and so she wrote, “ I got the idea that I might want to go on a pilgrimage of sorts, tour a few other houses of worship, finally find out just what goes on in those churches I grew up forbidden to enter, and understand what makes for devotion to a religious community. Rather than sit quietly by myself in an empty church, I would, for a day, be part of a congregation once again.”

All it took to set the book in motion was for Tommy to say, “Write about it!” and off she went, across America. No doubt he said the same as she traveled to Ireland and Africa in pursuit of a story. Tommy and Suzanne, not only share the same desk, they share many of the same passions and they give each other the space they need to be the best they can be as far as writing goes, as far as pouring themselves into their causes, as far as giving one hundred and ten percent.

A few years ago, when I first met Suzanne, I heard that her husband who had worked as a reporter for Springfield newspapers for the past 42 years had decided to take a job with The National, an English language newspaper in Abu Dhabi. With her support and encouragement, Tommy went off to work as Editor of the Foreign Desk in that foreign country on the other side of the world. Perhaps that was a dream of his, and Suzanne most likely said, “Go for it,” just as he had said to her so many times before.

From what I can witness of the two of them together, not just here in their living room, but everywhere they go, they are a couple who have been blessed with careers that they enjoy and they weave their lives with threads of work, and friendships, and music, and travel and of course, the worthy causes that they pursue with all of their hearts, because they can, because they do it together and appear to sacrifice nothing of their relationship in the process. Yes, they are workaholics, but they seem to be very happy with the condition.

Suzanne might have thought she was destined to be a photographer back when she was a sophomore in high school. She might have never envisioned her life as a successful writer of books and essays that would appear in major magazines. She could not have known when she sat at her typewriter to compose a letter to the Springfield Republican, (complaining that they were not sending a reporter to cover the Palmer Panthers hockey games) that she was setting the wheels in motion as far as her writing career, and that the letter would lead her to Tom Shea, her Tommy, sports reporter for the Republican, and three years Suzanne’s senior.

They became friends of course, and long before they would each come to excel in their writing lives, that one letter that started out as a complaint tied them together for life. “If that was the only thing I ever wrote then I’d be O.K.” says Suzanne. “You know, I’d say, ‘I’m a success’!” and who could argue with that?




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