Frida Kahlo is my stand-in Higher Power: A Conversation with MB Caschetta
MB Caschetta and I have known each other for thirty years. We became friends while both of us were doing AIDS activism in NYC in the late eighties and early nineties; nurtured the relationship during the weeks we both cared for Jon Greenberg during his illness and death from HIV in 1993; charted each other’s spiritual paths; commiserated when romantic relationships or therapists disappointed; and have held fast to our bond as writers and as readers of each other’s work. And so, it was a great joy to interview MB on the release of her new book, A Cheerleader’s Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment! This creative nonfiction/memoir runs the gamut of the author’s experiences, including coming out, AIDS activism, bad girlfriends, being disinherited, marrying her lesbian partner, and long COVID.
MB Caschetta (MBC): I’m working on a novel about an ACT-UP type activist group during an unnamed public health crisis similar to AIDS, and how the very thing this group worked toward with such ferocity (a cure) is the very thing that breaks it apart. It’s written in the first-person plural and addressed to an anonymous “you,” the person who discovered the cure. I think it’s more of a haunting than a novel, if you know what I mean.
RD: From your Author’s Note you say: “This is a book of creative nonfiction meant to reflect the author’s present recollections of experiences over time and written to emphasize certain important truths within those experiences according to her understanding of them.” Can you describe how this work differs from writing memoir? Both in genre, but also in the process of writing it.
MBC: I always start a piece with a feeling I have that I want to share; I want the reader to get to the end and have the same feeling I have about the topic. So, sometimes you end up sacrificing facts in order to get to a more artful rendering of reality. For me that means shaping the feeling that the reader gets on the last page or last word of the essay. This is true for me across genre: story, essay, novel, memoir. It’s just how it happens for me, or maybe to me.
RD: In the chapter “Pharmaceutical Whore,” you describe your success at doing medical writing, first as a feminist and AIDS Activist, and later as a well-paid free-lancer in medical communications.I’ve done medical writing too at various times in my life, and we’ve commiserated on the “whore” part of taking money from the pharmaceutical industry. (Your comment: “My work, for instance. It’s ridiculous. the less I seem to care, the more praise and pay I get.”) I always found it difficult to do the creative writing when I was writing copy for a living. Over the years, you seem to be able to do both simultaneously. What’s your secret?
MBC: I think the secret is that you must never spend all your brain reserve on your paid work. You must always care more about your own writing. So, if you spend 50% of your daily effort and energy on paid work, that’s fine. But then you might want to spend 51% of your daily energy on your own creative work. (I give 101% in a day. What can I say?) This is an average: some days there’s more paid work; some days there’s more creative work. It’s a balance that takes a lot of practice and a long time to manage. The whole balancing acts is always in process.
RD: There is a full-circle spiritual journey in these pages. From “Everything is great, except for the suicide journals” in an early chapter (“Cheerleader”) to the very last lines of the last chapter (“The Loneliness of the COVID Long Hauler”): “… maybe I have finally found the perfect vantage point from which to see that the God for whom I’ve searched my whole life has been here all along, a God that is simply love itself, and mercy.” I cry every time I read those lines, by the way. People sometimes talk about writing memoir as a healing experience. Was the experience during the writing of these period pieces of your life also a spiritual journey?
MBC: Yes! One-hundred percent, yes! It gives me happy goosebumps that you’ve asked this question because I know you get it, and I know you have a spiritual-writing connection, too. Healing is definitely always a goal for me personally in everything I do. But, I find that writing kind of touches something holy in me.
RD: You’ve seen a great deal of illness and death in your own generation: AIDS, cancer, chronic illness, addictions, suicide. You’ve also witnessed the death of a parent and a mother-in-law. You’ve described your own and others’ spiritual responses to illness. In the chapter “God is a Lesbian,” you say: “Now and again, I still look for answers—not usually scientific ones, but something more spiritual—and find only more questions.” Do you have any thoughts about how the AIDS crisis and COVID have changed your generation’s thoughts or spiritual practices surrounding illness and death?
MBC: Wow…you are like a genius interviewer! That is a great question! It’s interesting because during the AIDS crisis it was mostly young people who were dying, and during the COVID crisis it’s been many older and health-compromised people who have been dying and dying alone. With both AIDS and COVID though, the collateral damage is the survivors, I think. I guess that has to be true when any large portion of the population dies in a condensed period of time. For previous generations, it was world wars. For our generations, it’s been wars against viruses. I think in all these cases, the circumstances are different, but the human grief, the human toll, and the human need for spiritual connection are the same. We don’t change that much, I guess. Maybe that’s a new idea for me. I think you get a broader perspective the older you get.
RD: In the last chapter, “The Loneliness of the COVID Long Hauler,” you describe how your experience of COVID illness led to the eventual realization that you had long COVID, something that is likely to affect millions of people, but was barely understood at that time and remains understudied. In addition to your spiritual responses, you have a rich scientific understanding of illness. Do you have any predictions for us on how post-COVID illnesses will affect all of our futures?
MBC: I think we’re headed for another public health crisis as young people—mostly women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s—as well as underserved communities and BIPOC folks experience the ravages of long COVID. The prediction is that organ damage, such as cardiovascular events, will begin to show up in those with long COVID. I hope not, but I can attest to the fact that SARS-CoV-2 is a tenacious mo-fo. It seems to do damage at the most minute cellular level, and that will have scientists running in circles for a while, I fear.
RD: In the chapter, “What Gets Passed On,” you reflect on a talk you gave at an annual twelve-step convention in Provincetown, for an audience of about 1500 LGBTQ+ attendees. You describe your childhood and being disinherited by your father, and talk about how you lift yourself out of deep despair. In describing your spiritual “program,” you say: “… Frida Kahlo is my stand-in Higher Power until I can work my way up to a “God of my understanding. … I find a bit of compassion for my father, my brothers, my mother, myself; it’s something like forgiveness.” Can you describe how the process of forgiveness works in your life? What I mean is, how do you do it?
MBC: I wish I could. It’s a mystery to me. Sometimes I can forgive anyone anything. Other times, I hold onto my resentments like they are my very teeth. I want to forgive, though. Maybe that’s where it starts. I believe you have to want to go through the process—even though it is far from linear and logical. I think, like with all things divine, you have to be okay with the mystery of forgiveness and the not-knowing if/when it will truly arrive.
RD: In “Four Days in Silence (or Get Thee to a Nunnery)” you write about your experience of a four-day silent retreat at Genesis, a retreat center run by the Sisters of Providence in the Berkshires. You write of a particular night when ominous feelings came over you and you had a vision: “The thoughts persist, formless, unspeakable. I close my eyes to the young female faces all in a row—distraught, distressed. Their mouths gape open as they moan about incest and rape.” You learn that the place where you are staying used to be a home for pregnant girls, and some years later, you developed the narrative for your novel, Miracle Girls, where a young girl has visions and nuns run an underground railroad to clandestinely transport abused girls to safety. The word “miracle” appears more than a dozen times in this book. Do you still believe in visions and miracles?
MBC: There’s a very short answer to this wonderful question. And that is: yes. I still do believe.
RD: Doing the math, it occurs to me that your mother is close to 90. And your Nonnie lived a long life. I hope that bodes well for you too, even with your current struggle with long COVID. So, how are you doing these days?
MBC: Thank you for asking. I’m okay. I have two acupuncturists—a father and daughter team in West Hartford, Connecticut—each named Dr. Zhu, who have been the most helpful part of my multi-pronged treatment plan for long COVID. I recently had a pretty long run of many weeks of feeling pretty good as long as I didn’t exercise. And [my wife] Meryl and I recently moved, so there was some box carrying and a lot of physically activity, which I got through pretty well in terms of my health and energy. My hands and feet are still numb most of the time, though, and there’s a very unpleasant buzzing usually going around my chest and back. I have bad brain fog days, and I sometimes still need a good long power nap in the afternoon. But I’m definitely greatly improved. My plan is to do a tiny bit of yoga stretching this winter, which has (in the past) landed me in bed for weeks on end and in terrible pain, but I feel stronger now. I don’t know if I’ll make it to my 90s the way my mother has, and the way her mother and aunts all did. The general age for the “big curtain call” on my mom’s side of the family is about 96 years. That’s a long road ahead from where I am now. So, I guess we’ll see.
MB Caschetta is a recipient of the W.K. Rose Fellowship for Emerging Artists, the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, and the Seattle Review Prize for fiction. She’s a Medical Writer and Content Strategist by day, who lives in Western Massachusetts and on Cape Cod. She has published three previous works of fiction, including the award-winning novel, Miracle Girls.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and the Reviews Editor at River Mouth Review. She has published seven collections of poetry. A new collection, Rain / Dweller is forthcoming from MoonPath Press in 2023.