Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Reading like a writer. And like a reader. And like a teacher in The Secret Life of Bees.

Two things. First, I mentioned this weekend that I reread The Secret Life of Bees to bring my reading self back to life. Sigh. Second, my teaching life has been incredibly energizing this year. I'm obsessed with my 8th grade Reading and Writing team...we've been diving into the craft of teaching and have all been writing in order to study the process of real writers. It has been inspiring and motivating. So it's no surprise that this post is about the Secret Life of Bees and inspired by school. I'm a dork. I can't help it.

My students' homework assignment today was to write an entry in their notebook about their current reading life. To model, I talked about how I had to abandon a book and read an old favorite to get back to my reading "zone" (a term that only middle school English Language Arts use. Sorry. Ever gotten lost in a book? That's the zone! Ha.). I told my students that my "purposeful paragraphs" were going to be the background information about my recent reading state and how The Secret Life of Bees inspired me as a reader, and as a writer. And, to further attest to my needing help, I decided to do the homework, too. On my blog. So.

As a reader. First, this book is a treat to read. Sue Monk Kidd's descriptions name emotions that previously had been unnameable to me: "I didn't know what to think, but what I felt was so magnetic and so big it ached like the moon had entered my chest and filled it up." This is also a book about women who share a sisterhood--and there is just something about having amazing girl friends that resonates when the Daughters of Mary come together in this story. I love the strength that they offer to one another and the tender wisdom and patience they offer to the motherless Lily. And, Lily and August are lovers of literature and words. Writers and readers are cut from the same branch--because they know that the people who read their books are the kinds of people who love books (see The Book Thief, House on Mango Street, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn...). "Really, it's good for all of us to hear it again," she said. "Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here." Man. There aren't words (I don't know what to think, but what I feel is magnetic...aye.)

As a writer. My writing took a backseat for most of the summer, which was quite tragic. But as the fall usually does, inspiration creeps in and I once again have that feeling where I need to have a creative outlet for all that's going on in my head. What I have been thinking the most about lately is how to capture complex emotion. Lily Owens is so well written...it is almost like therapy reading this book. She begins as just a girl, curious and broken. I can picture in my head the prewriting that Kidd must have done to develop her so poetically and realistically. I want to create rich characters. Right now. I also love how throughout Lily's "coming of age" that August Boatwright is just steady and solid and wise. She is not the kind of annoyingly perfect kind of woman, but one who is seasoned and has spent some serious time reflecting. Lily and August's relationship is so so beautiful to me.

As a teacher. Coming of age stories never get old to me. And I don't think this is mutually exclusive with being a teacher of children who grow up in front of me. But. I cannot wait to talk with some of my students about this book...about how Lily responds to her life and how she changes. The metaphors are so rich and life giving. I'm excited to hear how girls respond to this, because again, I don't know what to think, but what I feel is magnetic.

(and no, I don't think I can see the movie, as much as I love Alicia Keys. I just don't want any of the pictures in my mind to change. Sigh.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Things good for a heart that is beginning to feel like itself again.

1. Read books with other people. One thing that drives me crazy about education classes is when they make you teach a class to adults the way you'd talk to children. Inauthentic and stupid. I'm taking a class right now with a woman who I think is the most brilliant reading and writing professional developer ever. In order to study strong readers, she says that we need to challenge ourselves as readers and see what we do when we read hard books. This is s dream for this former English major who longs to talk books with people. We read Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. (This alone was exciting enough...I've realized my love for crime and mystery television in the past few years, but have always stayed away from that genre of books. Atkinson's novel was such a well written crime novel. I highly recommend!) When we sat down to talk about the book with partners at class this week, we were asked to find a page that we'd want to read out loud, a page that we loved and a page that evoked some strong emotion in us. Slowing down and talking about books and good writing deepens the reading process so much. And even though I teach this for a living, reading literature beyond the plotline is one of the most satisfying experiences as a thinker.

2. Look for the good in old favorites. Old Counting Crows is a love of my life and some my most favorite driving music of all time. It took me a long time to purchase their new CD and was initially really disappointed in Saturday Nights Sunday Mornings, despite my love of the album title as the essence of Adam Duritz's song writing. And though I can't listen to the album the whole way through the way I would do with August and Everything After or Recovering the Satellites, there are some quality songs. Please listen to On Almost Any Sunday Morning and When I Dream of Michelangelo. It feels good to want to listen to a Duritz song on repeat again.

3. Reread Favorite Books. I spend too much money on my reading material. I've decided that other than the books I need to read for my class (and unless Foer comes out with something new), I'm going to reread books I love and that were life changing. The first one I picked up was The Secret Life of Bees and it's just so beautiful it makes me want to cry. It reminds me of what is Good. And I refuse to see the movie in fear that it will paint a different picture in my mind. Upcoming reread: The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

4. Pay close attention to the fall and drink your fill of English Breakfast tea.

Humbling. Myself as a Reader.

Who are you as a reader? This is a question that my department often asks of its students. One of the philosophies we base our work on is that students basically stop reading in or right after middle school, so we try to create classroom communities where kids can choose the books they read rather than having everybody read the same thing. This makes for difficult management at time (do we have books kids like? are they reading on their level?), but well worth it (most kids actually read and can name books that have changed their lives). The basic tenet we guide them with is pick a book you're excited to read that is at or just above your level.

This is the first piece of advice that I need to apply to myself. I recently started reading Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. It won the National Book Award. It is supposed to be amazing. But. I didn't enjoy reading it. It's not a light book, and I would dutifully pack it in my bag every time I left my apartment, thinking I would definitely read it on the subway. That is, until I found that I could play solitaire on my ipod...I mean, what better way to spend my time than staring at pinky-nail size cards? It's good for brains like mine to use logic every once in a while, right? It was so er, enthralling, that I couldn't put my *ipod* down. Tree of Smoke remained at the bottom of my bag. Interestingly enough, this was right around the time I went through a two week period where I didn't feel like myself. I wasn't reading and had zero motivation.

This is what we like to call a "teaching point." We never want our students to get stuck in books like this because they really do stop reading...and if I can be thrown off in my reading life, you can bet that so will kids. So I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that--just as I tell kids--it is ok to once in a while abandon a book. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I am mostly right brained, I have a few left brained tendencies--I like to be organized. I like cleanliness. I like to finish what I start, which was a problem for this Tree of Smoke dilemma. It pains me to leave a book unfinished. I see it sitting on my bookshelf haunting and taunting me.

But. I am trying to take my own teaching advice. When I realized the negative repercussions of not being engaged in my reading, I decided it was time. Well, in the back of my head I still think I will finish it, just like The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana...shoot. This has happened before and I didn't learn.)

So who am I as a reader? Someone who wants to be engaged and challenged by my reading...but when the challenge completely throws off the rest of my reading life, my personal life and my writing life (I obviously haven't blogged much lately...and yes, I use that in a verb), it is time to set my pride aside and admit.

I have to abandon this book.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


So inspiration is slowly trickling in. Sigh. First, a few of the reasons:
1. Brooklyn Modern, an amazing design book on my favorite borough (Thank you Katy!)
2. Fall. Let's be honest. This season truly is the best. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time walking around Brooklyn in the past few weeks, and the tree lined streets and the brownstone stoops covered in yellow leaves are almost too much for my heart. Especially if I am either drinking tea and/or listening to great music at the same time.
3. My living room is painted!

The third piece of information is very recent as my living room was painted just yesterday. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since, so I decided to think for a little while about why that was true. I came to realize that it symbolizes forward progress in our quest to redecorate. My roommate and I have been brainstorming for so long and now it is coming into fruition. This is a very good feeling. I am currently sitting at a cafe table that sits in our bay windows that look out over the treetops and rooftops and church spires of Park Slope. Sigh.

When my apartment is well designed, my life seems to function at a much higher level. For whatever reason, my mind doesn't feel cluttered when my physical space is not only organized but life giving--a space that invites thought and conversation and relaxation. My mind has felt off track for a while, and I'm sure if I dig deep enough I can find more concrete reasons, but I also think that it has to do with the flux that my living room has been in since August. So. I'm not posting pictures of anything yet, but it is all coming. Soon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A completely random post for my favorite Kendra.

I'm mid book and without much to say. Hence a few thoughts written to the heart-hurting gorgeous heirloom tomato I cut open tonight:

Not like others,
Your poppy-like red insides
surprised me
and I wanted to frame you
and your many intricate caverns and veins
furnished with generations
of farmers and their fields past.
Don't I always say that I want
the beauty
to be a part of me?

So I ate.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

an ode.

My reading life the past week has been a little sub-par. I'm reading a book that is supposed to be amazing, but I'm having a hard time getting drawn up into it. I have promised myself I will read it on all my subway rides this weekend, though, so that I can make some progress. So, it has been other words captivating me this week. Mostly songs.

Last night I found myself defending Ohio fiercely. Not that people were taking a strictly offensive position against my home state, but they were wondering what could possibly be good about it. And insulting Cincinnati (and the city of Dayton, but let's be honest). It should be stated that I haven't lived in Ohio for over 5 years. My parents have since moved. But. There is something ridiculously poetic about our cornfields, creeks and roadside vegetable stands, our Friday night football games and back roads. The interesting part is no matter what I said about the fine state, I could not convince anyone of its greatness. And this I have decided I actually like, even though many may laugh at me if I mention that I know of one of our country's most ignored gems. And of course, nostalgia colors life differently sometimes. But not the autumn.

So obviously, when I was wide awake at 4 am this morning, there was nothing I could do but listen to Over the Rhine while trying to fall back to sleep. Beyond my absolute love of their lyrics and music, they understand the beauty and home that is Ohio. So my point is that this post is an ode to Over the Rhine--whose music and gorgeously written seasonal email updates remind me of and make me long for home.

You really should download the following immediately. Limiting this to 5 was quite painful.

1. Anything At All/Ohio
2. Born/Drunkard's Prayer
3. Latter Days/Good Dog Bad Dog
4. Silent Night/Darkest Night of the Year (duet version...sorry it's not Christmas time. It's just too good not to mention)
5. Suitcase/Ohio