Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How do we move forward? On Memory, Part 1

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco is a title that I hesitate to bring up. It is the blasted book that I haven’t been able to finish, which I mentioned in my last post. This is distressing for multiple reasons. One is that it bothers me to leave something hanging incomplete. Character flaw or anal retentiveness? Both? Aye. The other reason is because it was incredibly intriguing when I first began. The main character is a man who suffered a stroke and with it lost his episodic, or autobiographical, memory. (“It’s episodic memory that establishes a link between who we are today and who we have been, and without it, when we say I, we’re referring only to what we are feeling now, not to what we felt before…” page 13). An antique bookseller in his sixties, Yambo can remember how to brush his teeth and drive a car, but cannot remember his wife, children, passions or childhood. The book traces his attempt to recover who he was and if that connects to who he is now post-stroke. Please don’t ask me how it turns out because I don’t know. Yet.

So I have been thinking about the degree to which our experiences, that turn into memories by the minute, influence who we are right now and the decisions and thoughts we have today. Yambo’s experience is the following: “Whatever feelings I once had were no longer mine. I wondered whether I had ever been religious; it was clear, whatever the answer, that I had lost my soul,” (page 21).

Whatever is in my past, good and bad, has shaped the way that I view the world. This is why it makes sense to me that different people understand the world in different ways depending on their experience. It is absolutely frightening to think about not being able to draw upon the past to process what is going on in and around me. In essence, Yambo is in the same position as a baby who has yet to create a framework of understanding. If this happens, is it possible to ever be the “same” person?

I have found myself wanting to wish certain parts of my past out of my memory—be it things that hurt so much to remember, or times where I have hurt someone else. But if I honestly think about that, I think most shadows of my past have—for better or worse, I guess—shaped part of my soul, as Yambo puts it. Who are we without our personal story? Does it matter if we remember every word we have ever read, but forget our narrative? One of the most heart wrenching moments in the book is when Yambo talks about his grandson: “I knew all about Alexander the Great, but nothing about Alessandro the tiny, the mine,” (page 20).

Romans 8 is making a little more sense to me in light of this: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” I was talking with some friends last night about His transformative power and this is where I see it…taking our pasts and producing a person closer to who we were meant to be, as if He knows who we can be and draws it out. We need to have our pasts to see this transformation and how making it through the moments that seem to take the life out of us are what help us to become as we reflect…and that is a good thing. And for that reason alone, I no longer want to white out the parts of my life I wish I could revise.

At the same time, I want to remember the times that have most shaped my soul in a pure, painless (unless you count the heart-hurt of beauty, of course)—the summer air of Ohio, reading Anne of Green Gables and The Chronicles of Narnia, laughing with friends and feeling understood. The sweetness of those memories overwhelms me. I’ll leave you with one more thought from Mysterious Flame: “If you don’t back up, you won’t go forward,” (page 28).

And a post-script: It appears that I only read to page 28. I know I teach 12 year olds, but I try not to be as rash as they are—I did read until page 300. I am currently mustering the strength to make it to 450.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

So maybe I don't want to be cynical...

I have a confession. I couldn’t make it through the end of “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.” It’s true. The guilt I feel in not finishing a book is horrible. I tell my students that it’s ok if they need to abandon a book every once in a while, but I have a hard time following my own advice. Four of the five other people in my book club have abandoned it as well, which is ample justification. They are much smarter than me. But still. The past week has probably been the worst reading week I’ve had in quite a long time. I am 100 pages behind for our new book club choice, The Inheritance of Loss. Blah.

So my writing today is based on the things that have been going on in my head, not necessarily based on my reading of text, but more of my reading of the world. I promise to follow up with thoughts about the good that came out of “Mysterious Flame” because I do want to still think Umberto Eco a genius. But not right now.

Last Sunday I was distraught because of the apparent lack of love and caring that I saw in books and movies that seemed to realistically portray the heartaches and misunderstandings of life that leave us feeling incredibly alone in a big world. However, I spent that evening and the following two days with my family at the funeral of my mother’s aunt, and I saw a completely different heartache…one that I have tasted in the past that I cynically forgot about while watching and reading “The Last Kiss” and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Haunting my thoughts all week has been the aching that comes from loving much.

I’m struggling with words right now, trying to decide how to portray the deep ache that I witnessed in my family last weekend, trying to give their feelings the poetry that is due to their depth. I cannot. But the one thing that I can write about is that there is a difference between the brokenness that comes from a selfish pursuit of happiness which plagued me the week before and the brokenness that comes from the loss of love that was strong enough to shape who we have become and who we want to be.

Both sides of the brokenness show us pieces of truth. Coming from selfish decisions, we become convinced that there is something utterly wrong in the world. Things are not as they should be and our compass for what is good and true and noble becomes completely skewed. But the brokenness that stems from the loss of loving much…that shows us what is right in the world and how things are supposed to be. Here we are left knowing, though, that deep, real love does exist and does change us. And at the end of the day, it’s what we’ve been craving all along.

Last Monday I was sitting at my aunt and uncle’s house with my cousins, parents, brother and grandmother where old stories and laughter were the order of the moment. In the midst of the people who I adore most in the world, I felt a part of something so much bigger than myself—my grandmother who described meeting my grandfather to me in song, eating french fries from the drive in where they still know my dad’s name from working there 30 years ago, stories that make us cry in our laughing. A slight fear of losing any of the people in the room caught my heart for a moment. But it came out of an overflowing cup—the kind of love that has tightly been woven around my life since before I was even born. A moment where everything seemed right.

I want to live out of that cup. I want to be motivated to love by the purity of that moment, and even the sorrow of watching my aunts and mother and the funeral Tuesday morning, knowing that they were loved by a woman who thought them special.

“Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55

Sunday, January 14, 2007

What are we doing?

I have found myself inundated with stories and movies and music about broken relationships--marriages, parent-child, friendship, dating...In fact, I was pretty nauseated by the time I finished reading "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" and watching "The Last Kiss." Not necessarily naueated by the stories themselves. The human aspects of both I thought were pretty realistic, sadly. I felt sick because of the things that we do to the people we care about, either intentionally or unintentionally, no matter what justifying motive we have.

The husband/father in "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" decides to give away his newborn daughter with Down's Syndrome without ever telling his wife or son. In the name of protecting those he loves the most, of wanting to shield them grief, he hides the truth from them and ultimately causes a pain much deeper than the one he was trying to prevent. His secret becomes a weight on, and ultimately defines, his existence. His wife and son are left with the empty, paralyzing feeling of being unable to change the past. The narrator's omnicient position is coveted, because only he and the reader can glimpse into the being of each person and see the longing and pain within each heart. The characters themselves have created a dance of stepping around all things real and are unable to see the complexity and mystery that lies within their own family.

Every relationship in "The Last Kiss" is falling apart to an unsettling degree. Every character in his/her late twenties is having a crisis in their relationship. A thirty year marriage where people feel unseen, a young couple with a baby where fights occur more often than any other conversation, and the picture perfect dating couple getting scared about what the future holds once they find out they are having a baby. That is the relationship we follow closely throughout the movie. We watch Michael get scared and flirt, literally, with a life that doesn't have a "set" future. He makes conscious decisions that he knows will hurt Jenna, his girlfriend and mother of his unborn baby, curses at himself, and does it anyway. His confusion and fear is natural. But the decisions that he makes are the essence of how people make decisions on the fly too often without considering the people they care about. In the name of independent spirits and thinking and in the name of taking control of our lives and pursuing what feels best at the moment, we immediately lost sight of what actually matters.

Why can't we be open, truthful and loving? Truth is rarely easy to hear. But why are we afraid of it?

Why is it so hard to tanglibly put the needs of the people we care about above ourselves?

To process through this at eleven last night, I made pancakes and listened to Joshua Radin. Ha. I felt that throughout my day, I had just looked at the gut of humanity (through text, of course...until I realized that I fit into this category of selfish reflection and motivations just as much as the next person...or character...). And not only in the conscious-decision selfishness, but in refusing to look at the whole picture of any situation from anyone's perspective but mine--the trap that David Henry fell into in "Memory Keeper." This is not to say that I think we are all just jerks (sorry, I'm lumping everybody in). It's to say that I think we need to think. About others. Period.

Jenna's father in "The Last Kiss" in both a "you broke my daughter's heart" moment as well as one that is self reflective upon his own marriage, says something to MIchael along the lines of "You are the only person your feelings matter to. it doesn't matter what you say or how you feel, it matters what you do and how you show it." What immediately came to mind was what Paul wrote to the Galatians: the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. The only thing. The on
ly thing.


Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Continuing Thoughts On Windows

To what degree do we let people in? To what degree do we let ourselves be seen?

To what degree do we want to be in other people's lives? To what degree do we try to actually see other people?

Sometimes I find myself looking at people as thought they were behind glass; just there to look at and observe. I can watch their movements all I want. They are not hidden--from sight, anyway. But behind glass, yes. Beyond my reach, of course. It is safer that way. No messes. No involvement. But really is gained? One more selfish moment in my life, I suppose. A few more minutes to contemplate my own well being.

And what does it say that I am so anxious to gaze into the lives of characters in the books I'm reading, but am not so quick to jump into the lives of the people that surround me each day?

In "The Memory Keeper's Daughter," (sorry, English teachers, I have yet to figure out how to underline a title on a blog) one of the main characters, Caroline, thinks about her daughter with down syndrome: "They'd never really see Phoebe, these men, they would never see her as more than different, slow to speak and to master new things. How could she show them her beautiful daughter: Phoebe sitting on the rug in the living room and making a tower of blocks, her soft hair falling around her ears and an axpression of absolute concentration on her face? Phoebe, putting a 45 on the little record player Caroline had bought her, enthralled by the music, dancing across the smooth oak floors..." (page 162).

There is such beauty in the way that this woman sees her small daughter. The way that she sees the depth and mystery of her young heart; the poetic in the simple and everyday. I often wonder, but rarely follow through, what it would be like to look at people like that. It does bother me that this feels cliche just typing this out. I picture Sunday School teachers in my head (no offense, I have been one), clamoring for us to see the good in everyone. But I guess what I want to look for is not the good, per se, but the beauty. The mystery that is each person.

At the same time, I have to consider if I live my own life in a window. If to be known and understood is one of the deepest desires of the heart, why on earth am I so slow to let that out? (Please pardon all the questions. I warned you this was for thinking as I go.)

This book is so filled with secrets...characters not sharing significant moments of their pasts; building up inner walls around what is actually going on in their minds and hearts. They are left, obviously, in a swirl of thoughts wondering what has happened to all the images they once had of what their life would be, or the shell-like image that their lives have become. It is hard for them to even believe that poetic even exists anymore, unless it is in a cringe-like self realization of its loss.

The interesting twist is that a stranger walks into one of their lives and is able to see it...but does that mean as much? Maybe. Sometimes. But how much more to be able to see those who are intricately involved in our lives? To look past the window of what we think we already know?

My heart hurts watching these characters and the mess of windows in their lives to the degree that I have been tempted more than once to abandon it immeditately and reread the next Harry Potter (in good time, in good time). But I think that must tell me at least a little bit about myself... I am tempted to keep even fictional characters at bay. Aye.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

"We Demand Windows"

I am the kind of person who is never without a book, and my worst nightmare is getting stuck on a line or train without something to read. The teaching of reading is my profession. Living in a New York City apartment is not made any easier with the amount of books that occupy my small space. On the bookshelf next to my bed, I have 8 books "on deck," just waiting for me to open their pages. And yet, I still find myself browsing through each bookstore I pass and having to pry myself away from titles calling my name.

But what I have found most recently is that in my voracious pursuit of the written word, I have forgotten to stop and really think about the literature that I have in front of me. I become lost and consumed by many imaginary lands and people, but I want to take them out of that moment of just reading. I want them to affect my thinking and the way I go about the world. Not that there isn't value in those moments of reading; in fact, I think that is often the most beautiful part about reading. But at the same time, I believe that it is possible to take them with me as I step out of line, off the train, drift off to sleep or walk to make tea.

"A Kind of Library" is my attempt to respond. It might be to fiction or essays, poetry or scripture, whatever written words happen to be haunting my space. There are a thousand or more ways of looking at literature...most are intensely personal. I cannot pretend that this will not be. We all have our own lenses with which we examine what is going on about us. I will do my best to be clear and honest about my own.

C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay "An Experiement in Criticism:" "What then is the good of--what is even the defense for--occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist..? The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself...We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own...We demand windows."

When I look through those windows, I really am able to feel the way another has felt and by doing so, understand humanity a little bit more. The more I realize this, the more I see how important it is to glimpse into other lives; to move away from the self and truly see. C.S. Lewis is my literary hero, and his idea that "we want to be more than ourselves," that we have a longind deep inside of us for a deeper, truer version of this world has been foundational in developing my own thoughts not just as a reader, but as a person. This will most likely be the thread that I try to unravel most often.

This blog is mostly for self-accountability purposes--I want to actively think about what I am reading in light of how I am living and what I believe. Talking about books, though, is the next best thing to reading. If you ever do want to share your thoughts, I would love to hear them.

One closing thought--

"Why are we reading, if not in the hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?"
-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life