Sightlines: Home, Place & Family

The “home” part of the title of this blog comes from my conviction that we all need some kind of roots, and a place that takes us in, no matter how tattered and weary we’ve become, no matter what we’ve done or not done, no matter our state of mind or the state of our checkbook. Home is the place you go when you need to be enfolded, uplifted, nurtured, inspired, and rejuvenated.

That’s certainly true for Janet Riehl, my guest this week. Her book Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary chronicled the aftermath of a truly terrible time in her life using the unsual format of story-poems. That book touched hearts and opened doors for Janet, and she eventually decided to extend the journey from the printed page to the spoken word–plus music. Thus was born Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music. I asked Janet to talk about what this version of Sightlines means for her in terms of community and culture.


SUSAN: The ninety poems that comprise Sightlines the book were born from the horrific year in 2004 when your sister, Julia Ann, was killed in a car accident, and you commuted back and forth from northern California to the Midwest to help tend your mother after her stroke. What was it like to find yourself going back and forth between the creative ferment of the community you wove in northern California, and your childhood home at Evergreen Heights overlooking the Mississippi River?

JGR: First, we’ve lived on our place in SW Illinois since the 1860s. Then, you need to know that in 1972, I began roaming the world and lived in New Mexico and California. I stayed in contact with my family in that 32 year interval between 1972-2004 by visiting the home place once or twice a year. When Julia died, I didn’t know what to do until a friend, listening to me weigh my decision to go home or not, told me straight: “Everyone deserves to know the truth of their lives.” That’s what led me back home to the Midwest into my commuting arrangement of six weeks in Illinois and three weeks in Northern California (Lake County).

In some ways, it was a relief to leave Lake County fulltime, though difficult. My sweetheart lived there, and I continued several of my creative projects based there from afar. Lake County became my respite from the intensity of my life at Evergreen Heights, where my parents and my niece’s family lived. Daniel supported my decision and gave me a place to base from physically. However, moving back and forth between Lake County and Evergreen Heights meant that I had no foundation in my life…no friends, really, in either place. While I had friends in Lake County, I had to be the one to ring up to announce, “Hi, Honey! I’m home.” And the friendships in Illinois were hard to develop because I was caring for mother most of the time. My emotional base shifted back to the Midwest and our homeplace.

My time in Illinois was focused on mother’s care and my changing relationship with my father, who had been mother’s principle caregiver since her stroke in 2001. He still remained her night nurse even when I was there to take up the slack during the day. We were both stretched, with little relief. As a result, my relationship with my father became closer, and more adult to adult. Mother had been in the same car accident that killed my sister. Fortunately, she had recovered enough in the care facility, that we were able to bring her home. Daddy taught me so much as we devised our own style or caring for mother, using music and jokes to communicate not only with her, but between each other. If there was some tiff between us, the only sensible thing was to quickly let go of it by saying, “I’m sorry” to him. That’s when I began reading bedtime stories to Mother and Daddy from the twelve Western novels he wrote. …

The book was the best thing to happen in such a milieu.  It was portable between my two locations, and something that belonged to me, without question. My other major comfort was the land of my childhood…the 100 acres still left atop the bluffs above the Mississippi where I continued to roam in the woods and fields and along our country road still bearing our family name, “Riehl.”

SUSAN: You’ve said that your audio book Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music , is a patchwork quilt of stories, poems, and music. How does the metaphor of a quilt relate to the culture and landscape of your family?

JGR: Quilting is deep within the history and culture of our family–both on the Riehl side (my father’s side), and with my Mother. We have a trunk filled with delicate quilts made by the aunties, the Riehl sisters who raised my father. We have more trunks filled with the quilts Mother collected and the 50 comforters she made. This spring, we documented our quilt collection for groups like the Historical Society. My father wanted to do this as a tribute not just for the women in his life, but also for the work/art work of women in that area from 1900 through 2000. When I was sorting artifacts after my Mother’s death in 2006, I discovered dozens of bags of scraps saved by the Aunties and my Mother…as an aching to make their next generation of quilts. In my own life, I have made two quilts from African fabric…the stitching begun by hand in Ghana.


For me, the quilting metaphor links with my collaging drive. The audio book can also be thought of as an elegant and elaborate collage of poems, songs, stories, and jokes. In a way, my father’s spirit forms the glue for the collaged elements.

SUSAN: When you decided to produce a recorded version of your successful book of memoir in poetry, what motivated you to add your father’s voice and music to your reading of the Sightlines poems? Did you envision how much Sightlines would change and evolve when you decided to go with an audio version?

JGR: I’d wanted to do an audio version very shortly after the book came out in 2006. I appeared on several podcasts and internet radio shows. I started giving thematic talks and readings on the book. I always included music. People consistently said that the music enhanced the poems…and, that my voice added so much to the context of the poetry.

The audio version came up suddenly as I planned a trip to Nashville to visit two blogging buddies I made through the publication of Sightlines. It suddenly occurred to me that Nashville was the perfect place to do this, and one of my buddies knew the perfect person to be my recording engineer–her son-in-law. Thus, the visit expanded to include recording the poems and starting a wonderful collaboration with Scott Kidd. What we did with the project became so much
more than my original conception. I had no idea how long it would take, how much it would cost, or what steps it involved. I had a passion to do it, and that carried me through this seven month accelerated learning program.

Once we decided to start the project, I knew, without any debate in my mind, that my father would be a major presence and collaborator in the project. I wanted his voice to begin, as he read the poems he’d composed in Julia’s section. When I’d ordered the poetry book, my sense was that as the family patriarch, his voice needed to take us into the world of our family-shaking event and my year of coming home. I also recorded his voice–so gravelly and authoritative–reading the dialogue lines I wrote for him in my own poetry. His voice adds so much gravitas to the project. It instantly sets the context of generations of family history he carries. We recorded our music session at Evergreen Heights in his parlor using a mini disc player. It ran throughout the session, catching not only the music we’d selected for each section, but also my father telling stories and our banter between songs.

 I wanted the audio to enhance the book and set a wider cultural context, not replicate what the book offered on its own. I feel we completely succeeded.

SUSAN: If Sightlines had been set entirely in northern California’s lake country, would that landscape and culture have suggested a different form for the original book, and different content for the audio version? What would have changed?

JGR: Truly, I don’t believe the book would have jostled forward to come through me had I stayed in Lake County. There would have been no intimacy with our family land or with my family of origin. I would have had little sense of a shared sense of grief, in the same body of our family. Even though it was hard going back to the Midwest and riding out that tempestuous time, that was the greatest blessing I could have opened myself to. In the five sections of Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary, I write about three people (Julia, Mother, and Daddy) and two places (Evergreen Heights and Lake County) I loved. That tension between going back and forth between these entirely different landscapes and cultures was essential to the formation of the book. In that going back and forth, too, I came to an illuminating perspective of how my life had looked to my family…a bit daft. Their Midwestern viewpoint now made perfect sense to me, and started looking a bit daft to me as well–all the chances I’d taken, all the nomadic peregrinations I’d traveled.

If I’d stayed in Lake County and not altered my relationship with my father, mother, and our land, the book Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary wouldn’t have existed, and therefore, the audio book could not have existed…and if it somehow did, the collaboration with my father and his music certainly wouldn’t have taken on the only natural choice as it did.

SUSAN: What’s next in your creative life?

JGR: Ah! There’s always something, next, isn’t there? Wouldn’t it be nice sometimes if the muse just curled up in the corner and took a nap? At the end of July, I’ll have three major projects completed: 1) the blog tour of 18 plus stops for the audio tour will be rather splendidly concluded; 2) Stephanie Farrow and I will have posted the last of Cycle four for our Creative Catalyst Column that appears monthly on the Story Circle Network’s blog, “Telling Her Story”; 3) We’ll be holding my father’s family and friends poetry anthology Worth Remembering in our hands.

In August, I’ll feel more free to focus on the progress of my memoir, Finding My African Heart: A Village of Stories that tells the story of my five years in Africa during the 1970s and the way in which that time has shaped every day since.

Janet’s on a five-week blog book tour, with stops all over the world (virtual and real!). Yesterday she posted on writing a memoir in poetry for Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnet’s Womens Memoirs blog. Next stop: June 9th, she’ll be talking with mystery writer Claire Applewhite on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch book blog.

She’s also running a treasure hunt. Be the first reader to answer the question correctly and receive a free copy of Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music. Here’s the clue for today:

First, watch Sightlines blog tour video #1: Getting Ready to Go–Nashville Launch Dinner here on the Riehlife.
Second: Answer today’s question: Why is Janet looking forward to meeting her special guest at the Launch Dinner?
Third: Contact Janet.

Thanks, Janet, for stopping by!

A quick garden note: We took the walls-o-water off the tomatoes today, and it’s been thunderstorming ever since. I hear it hailed down the valley–oh, my! The tomato plants would not have liked that. Good thing it’s just raining here. I’ll post more photos of the resilience of my garden and native grassland soon. They’re greening up and springing into growth with these recent, following more than a year of drought. Love that green!