Faye Rapoport DesPres is a writer who was born and raised against a backdrop of loss, and for much of her life, she’s had the sense that she was always holding the carrot of happiness just beyond her reach. Her father is a Holocaust survivor. She grew up without her extended family. She had a hysterectomy as a young woman. She watched her mother-in-law die from a brain tumor.
She is also a rescuer of stray cats and caterpillars, a seeker who has learned that one of the advantages of oversensitivity is the ability to feel immeasurable joy, too. Sometimes love can be discovered while feeding a cat, singing ABBA songs in a car with a friend, or when your husband brings you a cup of coffee, all the while knowing you cannot save the world, and you can’t stop death. Yet, how do you carry on?
A Message From a Blue Jay: Love, Loss and One Writer’s Journey Home is an honest and brave memoir-in-essays. I appreciate Faye’s honesty in admitting how her compassion was tested by her mother-in-law’s rages, and how hard it was to cope with an oppressing sadness when she thought she should be filled with appreciation for the good things in her life. I recognized that shameful feeling — What do I have to be depressed about? It’s good not to feel so alone.
Faye is a truth-seeker. In an essay on memoir, she once stated, “The best teaching writers I’ve worked with often tell me that writing personal essays is, at its heart, a form of inquiry. You start with the intention of revisiting a memory, re-telling an event, or relating an observation, but really you are searching for what it all means. Your goal is to find, as essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick would say, the story behind the situation. The process is never as simple as you think, at least for me it isn’t. But in the end, if you stick stubbornly with your subject and explore it with all your guts, you learn what is behind your need to write about it – and it’s not always what you expect.”
In Message from a Blue Jay, Faye shares “this time and place with strangers, this era that is and has been my life” in a way that gives us surprising inspiration. It’s a memoir of great hope against a backdrop of loss. I was excited to ask Faye some questions about her journey and what she’s learned through her writing.
Q: One reviewer wrote that you are a seeker, and “a seeker never arrives.” Do you feel as if you’ve arrived? Did writing this memoir help?
A: I don’t feel as if I’ve arrived, and I think part of my journey is the acceptance that I might never “arrive” in the way I once hoped. I think writing this memoir helped me explore that whole concept, which is a familiar quandary for many people: “What am I looking for, and will I ever find it?” As clichéd as it sounds, life really is more about the journey than the destination. When I began to let myself fully experience particular moments in my life, I realized that maybe any moment could be an “arrival”—for however long it lasts. Even arrivals are ultimately transitions.
Q: You wrote that you believe fairy tales should be told to little girls (to all children, really) to teach them to imagine the fantastic and believe in possibilities and magic. What is your favorite fairy tale, and why?
A: Now that’s an interesting question that no one has asked me before! I honestly don’t think I have a favorite fairy tale. I’m not an expert on the genre, for sure. There are so many fairy tales from many different cultures, and I imagine I could find one I could really relate to if I did enough reading. Of course, like many American children, I heard stories about Cinderella and Snow White and other well-known Disney-type protagonists, and I loved to imagine a “happily ever after.” I still do. I like the story of Cinderella because I’ve always rooted for underdogs. It’s nice to imagine the person who is usually overlooked finally getting noticed and breaking free…and I can’t deny that I don’t mind the thought of the “evil stepmother” and the snobby sisters getting their comeuppance.
Q: Caring for the elderly can try your patience, even more so when you have to deal with drastic personality changes. It takes courage to admit the anger you felt at your mother-in-law’s rants, and a great deal of self-control not to act on it. When you look back at Judith now, what do you remember?
A: Sadly, because I knew Judith for such a short time before she became ill, my clearest memories of her come from that difficult time. That time was traumatic—for her first and foremost, of course, but also for everyone involved—and traumatic experiences, unfortunately, tend to stick with me. However, I try very hard to remember who Judith was before the brain tumor. She was a unique individual; she had many exceptional qualities. When I wrote about her I tried to balance the difficult things by mentioning other aspects of who she was. She was an incredible artist, and she cared deeply about her art students (especially the ones who might feel like social outcasts). She could also be very kind. She had two young Scottish Fold cats when she passed away (they live with us now) and she used to give them Cornish game hen as a treat. One day when Jean-Paul (my husband and her only child) opened her refrigerator door and reached for a piece of chicken, she said, “No, that’s for the cats!” We had a good laugh about the fact that she was denying her only child food so the cats could have it. She laughed right along with us. She was a very intelligent, creative human being. Her diagnosis was a true tragedy.
Q: Is it hard for you to turn a clear and critical eye on yourself when writing memoir or personal essays?
A: It’s not hard for me at all. I’ve always been pretty critical of myself (unfortunately!). If anything, I’ve had to work on being a bit kinder to myself. I’d like to think I’m a good person, and I work hard at doing right by others and contributing something positive to this world. I have a deep love for animals and nature. But I’m a human being, and I have flaws. No doubt about it. I think that’s okay. In fact, I think one of the more positive aspects of growing up is learning to accept that you, like everyone else, are not perfect.
Q: At the same time, how do you keep from beating yourself up when you discover any less-than-lofty ideals?
A: I have to admit, I still beat myself up sometimes over even small things. I find myself wishing I had said or done or handled something better, or that I was a person who had this or that more admirable quality. But in the end, all you can be is yourself. You can try to do better next time, but beating yourself up doesn’t change the past and it doesn’t help anyone. I try to learn from my mistakes, fix whatever needs to be fixed, apologize if I need to, and move on! I think it’s important not to get too caught up in one’s self. How funny is that for someone who just published a memoir-in-essays?
Faye Rapoport DesPres was born in New York City, and over the years she has lived in upstate New York, Colorado, England, Israel, and Massachusetts. She has spent much of her professional writing career as a journalist and business/non-profit writer. In 2010, Faye earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College’s Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program, where she studied creative nonfiction.
Early in her career, Faye worked as a writer for environmental organizations that focused on protecting wildlife and natural resources. In 1999, after switching to journalism, she won a Colorado Press Association award as a staff writer for a Denver weekly newspaper, where she wrote news stories, features, and interviews.
Faye’s freelance work has since appeared in The New York Times, Animal Life, Trail and Timberline and a number of other publications. Her personal essays, fiction, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including Ascent, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, damselfly press, Eleven Eleven, Fourth Genre, Hamilton Stone Review, Necessary Fiction, Platte Valley Review, Prime Number Magazine, Superstition Review, The Whistling Fire and the Writer’s Chronicle. Her blog can be read here, and she is also on Facebook and Twitter.