Monday, June 29, 2009

God Save the Queen.

This is today. It happened on accident after I got to Central Park at 7 am to get tickets for Twelfth Night and learned that there are no shows on Monday. I already had a book, blanket and breakfast, so I went to the Shakespearean Gardens for the morning:

This is the English countryside three summers ago:

And these are my sweet kindreds in photos that describe better than words our general feelings about the English countryside, which we had pictured in our minds for so long, but didn't really believe it actually existed until we found ourselves frolicking in it:

I couldn't stop thinking about these kindreds and England this morning as I drank my tea and had a hard boiled egg for breakfast, reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and feeling thoroughly British:) (The book is definitely the English dork's version of Chick-Lit, but I will put aside my snobbery because it was such a lovely indulgence. Set first in London right after World War Two, the main character is a 32 year old female writer whose path crosses with fellow readers who live on mostly rural Guernsey Island in the English Channel). This stolen time reminded me of Beauty and Goodness and Story and Friendship, which all seem so elusive sometimes. I'm not sure why I so often forget all of this and the feeling of a full heart, but I'm pretty sure I would be a better person if I didn't.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

this is brooklyn not seattle. stop it.

i swear i see a vein of orange
just north of verrazano


despite the layers of almost yellow
and the stripes of nearly blue

above the rising slope of brownstones
and bursting greens of treetops

the water wouldn't stop
impeding my view.

You should really believe in magic.

Magical realism by easiest definition is when an author weaves magical aspects into an otherwise realistic story. I would describe it as poetic exaggeration...but exaggeration is the wrong word because it has a connotation of ridiculous. Poetic...amplification? Magnification?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes it as: "...the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness...What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She didn't change her expression at all when telling her stories and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face." Sigh.

Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquirel, is the love story of Tita, the youngest of 3 daughters, on whom the family duty falls to remain unmarried and take care of her mother until she dies;though love story in the broadest--and fullest--sense of the word: passion but also the deep love of great friends and the love of food and life and of course, inevitable heartbreak, all tragic and yet beautiful. It is the hints of the fantastical that make Tita's story so beautiful, and ironically enough, more real. Stark realism just isn't enough sometimes. (These old posts explain a bit more fully.)

I would have to quote way more than what is appropriate for a blog post to fully explain why and how magical realism takes your breath away in this story, so it's probably just a better idea to read the book and see the streams of tears, blankets the measure 3 hectares and the visits of ghosts for yourself. I stand fully convinced that everything is better if a little magical.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

For the love of reading.

June planning is half of the reason I still live in New York. The time at the end of the year when my department at work reflects on the past year and begins making plans for the next. I suppose it's a sign that I'm in the right profession, because every year the idea of re-imagining how to help kids love reading and writing is incredibly energizing. Five years ago probably this week I was deciding whether I should move back to Ohio or stay in New York. My first year of teaching was a circus: teaching 3 different subjects, two grades and not having my own classroom, I was literally beat. But when my team sat down to talk, I realized I actually had insight, rather than my typical sitting at meetings and soaking in other people's advice and ideas. Planning was a creative outlet for me. So I stayed, excited for the next year (and an all 7th grade ELA program, obviously)...and the prospect of living in a bug free apartment with two of the greatest friends in the world (the other half of my reason for staying.)

Anyway. My 8th grade ELA team's June planning has been so invigorating. In our re-imagining of our reading curriculum, it has left me wanting to do nothing but read. Truly. 8th grade reading is mostly about going deep, making connections and being excited about the ideas you find. In order to teach into this idea, we are revisiting old favorites from childhood and reading them with a closer lens--teaching skills for close, thoughtful reading with an incredibly accessible text. Then they can practice in a childhood re-read of their own, then apply the skills to their on-level reading. Make sense? Stay with me for why this is relevant to you.

Our read aloud is Charlotte's Web. Yes, the book that you probably read in second grade. But. You have no idea just how thought provoking, well written and life-giving this book is. The teachers are also reading "The Annotated Charlotte's Web" in preparation, which includes a ridiculous amount of information on E.B. White, his overall brilliance, writing craft and the tracing of themes. This facilitates "reading like a writer" better than any text I've come across. I can't wait to talk about this with my students. But. The greatest part:

After our students have read Charlotte's Web with us, and have re-read a childhood classic, they will write an "appreciation." A colleague found these forewords in Penguin's Children's Classics: an author writes about his/her childhood experience reading the book and what it means to them as an adult. It has been so much fun talking about our favorite reading experiences as children: The Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, The Wind in the Willows...We can't wait to give our students the opportunity to revisit these books and write about their experience with them the first time and what it was like to reread them as young adults. Sigh. It just takes me back to the world of imagination when playing pretend felt so real.

You should seriously consider going back to some childhood favorites and rereading them. I'm convinced that they help remind us of all that is good and true. I just love how reading can change us and shape us and I am forever grateful that my parents "forced" my brother and I to read every night before we went to bed...a habit I never grew out of. I'll post my "appreciation" later this summer. I'd love to hear about the books that defined your childhood. Reread and remember.

I love books.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Soliciting Summer Reading Suggestions...

I typically get a little over zealous in the number of books I can read in the summer, but I do have a lot of time. Books I'm considering right now:

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Hobbit By J.R.R. Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Recommendations? Comments on these choices?

An updated official list with pictures coming soon...

Friday, June 5, 2009

I like television. This is dedicated to my favorite science teachers out there, Beth Mount and Joanna Santarpia.

I really enjoy a lot of television programs.

Every time I say this, there is something in me that feels like it is a confession. Perhaps the true confession is that when I didn't watch a lot of television in college somehow thought I was better? Gotta love the pride of thinking you know everything at age 20. Granted, living vicariously though television shows is probably not smart either: there are real people out there to talk to, though I do have introverted tendencies. (The same argument could be made about incessant reading-but somehow that makes me smarter? academic looking? Ha.) And I don't schedule my life around television shows...that's what and netflix are for. But. I've realized that I watch most television the way I read books. There are different categories:

1. I read for plot. These are the books that are mostly entertainment, pure enjoyment and often suspenseful (Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter--whose literary value is enormous to me, the Twilight series, whose doesn't). Television shows in this category include: Bones (seasons 1-3 only, people), Law and Order, The Closer

2. I read for brilliant portrayal of or commentary on a time or place. These are enjoyable, yet artistic and thought provoking (Pride and Prejudice, The Book Thief, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Invisible Man). Television shows that fall into this category include: Mad Men, My So Called Life

3. I read to better understand people. Human complexity, heart, struggle and change captivate me (A House of Mango Street, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Anna Karenina). Television shows that fall into this category, among others already mentioned: The OC (don't even get me started, I swear I will write you a treatise on why I love this show), Friday Night Lights, Damages

Now that that's all out of the way. I just finished watching season one of Lie to Me on Today it's description in my mind changed from pretty interesting and entertaining to brilliant. The premise is that Dr. Lightman, the main character, is an expert in reading human emotion through micro-expressions and leads a team of experts who work on various cases involving lie detection. What I realized while watching the season finale today is that one of the reasons I like this show so much is that it is courageous and timely in its subject matter. Lightman and his colleagues face ethical dilemmas concerning the nature of lies and truth, whether withholding information is playing God and the personal repercussions for working toward the greater good. The final episode of the season brilliantly (and without subtlety) challenged methods of FBI interrogation of terrorists, which I thought was incredibly interesting (and correct).

And though I'm not scientifically minded myself (as with music and art, I have to partake in the skills of others), I really walk away from shows like this one, the forensic anthropology in Bones and even the investigations in CSI wishing I knew more about science--and I think that kids who watch these shows might be more inclined to pursue degrees in science...and I also believe that every town needs detective workers with incredibly precise and sophisticated skill sets: a Dr. Temperance Brennan (Bones) and Dr. Cal Lightman, for example. (Aw, and what the heck, everyone needs a David Caruso, er Horatio Caine). The most interesting layer is that both of those characters are based on real life scientists who also write regularly.

Because I am a dork and was so fascinated by the end of Lie to Me tonight, I did some research. Lightman's character is based on Paul Ekman, who i quite prolific and someone I'd love to read more about. He also writes a blog to comment on each episode of Lie to Me.

My point is. [Some] television can make you smarter.

Of course, I can't end it just like that. I taught my students (wait...retaught for the hundredth time) today that at the end of an essay it's a good idea to revisit their thesis statements. I believe that some television shows explore story just as well as books or good films. Story is story is human experience and imagination. And I love that.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Brothers Karamazov. Existential Dilemmas. Jumbled thoughts. Etc.

"Poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship."

This is one of my favorite quotes by C.S. Lewis. I feel like it encapsulates all of the beauty and essence of what Christian faith should be. That being said--enter existential dilemmas that plague my thoughts on a regular basis: Despite my history as and oldest sibling/child and teenager who was most of the time afraid to break the rules and my generally moderate lifestyle currently, I cringe when I hear about faith without heart; faith where there are prescribed checklists for political parties and issues; faith that forgets the person of Jesus in the midst of checking the right boxes; faith that then only rants against people who believe in those issues and politicians. The brokenness in my heart. In yours. Sorry.

The Brothers Karamazov, a story of a family crime, was the perfect book to be reading in a season of life where such spiritual issues are haunting my brain because Dostoevsky interweaves an exploration of Christianity with dense complexity.

Together, the Karamazov men all seem to represent a somewhat elusive picture of how life should be experienced. The brothers are preceded by their father's reputation for utter abandon to his selfish, sensual desires. Alyosha, the youngest brother, seemingly misses that gene, is known for his goodness and enters a monastery, mentored by the beloved (by most...of course nothing is really cut and dry) Father Zossima. Ivan is the intellectual atheist. Dmitri is reckless, rash and passionate, whom most of the town views in a similar manner to the father.

Each of these men seems to carry a piece, though, of what makes my heart ache (in the good way) about humanity. Dmitri doesn't think through anything, but this is a man whose passion and vigor enables him to be in the moment. Ivan, though much more emotionally cool, understands that it is the small moments that matter in life: "I have a longing for life, and i go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet i love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people." Alyosha truly loves people.

One of the most interesting things that happened in the book is that Father Zossima, Alyosha's mentor at the monastery, bows down to Dmitri at one point early on, after he causes quite an embarrassing scene for the family. No one can understand, not even Alyosha, why Father Zossima has done this. Why would a monk bow to this out of control, thoughtless, unholy man? He later tells Alyosha that he "bowed down yesterday to the great suffering in store for him." Zossima saw to the depth of him and ached for him. He encourages Alyosha to leave the monastery and its safety in its orderliness, to love and help him. This is what lifts the grounded ship.

The irony of this moment is that when Father Zossima dies, his corpse gives off a foul smell, which all of the monks take as an ominous sign that something wasn't right within him. Is Doestoevsky commenting on our desire to find something wrong with someone who goes against the mold? Or maybe he believes that Zossima was crazy to bow before Dmitri, but I doubt it.

There are two scenes that seem somewhat parallel to me. One is when Zossima criticizes humanity for pursuing things that ultimately don't bring life: "Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. To have dinners, visits, carriages, rank and slaves to wait on one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honour and human feeling are sacrificed, and men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy it." We chase the wrong things and our hearts break. Over and over.

The other is when Ivan shares his fable of The Grand Inquisitor, where Christ comes back, but is arrested and sentenced to be killed. The Grand Inquisitor explains that his return would interfere with the mission of the church. Shoot. Historically, the Church has run into most of it's problems when it desires order, power and control. Ivan completely understands this, thus his justified distrust of the church.

So it's not about what we can consume for ourselves. It's not about controlling people. But loving people. Being with them when we are there. Seeing the small moments of beauty?

Poetry. Gospel. Longing.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Kindred Souls.

I've realized that there are two kinds of literary experiences I enjoy: reading, no matter what the style, masters of language and thought, and reading books whose characters are crazy endearing. Sometimes these two experiences overlap (see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The House on Mango Street, etc. ) and sometimes they do not. No matter.

As soon as I finished The Brothers Karamazov (master of language/thought category,) I knew that I needed to read something where I would just fall in love with the characters and get lost in the story. In such cases, it is always best to go with a recommendation from a kindred reader. Thanks to Julie Mecca, I spent the last three days reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and fell in love.

One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis: "Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common in insight or interest or even taste in which others do not share, and which, to that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like 'What? You, too? I thought I was the only one." Of course, such friendships are one of the greatest parts of life...and when a kindred soul passes on a book filled with kindred souls who embody all of C.S. Lewis' words, all things in the world seem right. Sigh.

The book is essentially a mini treatise on the nature of art, philosophy, literature and the question of what makes life worthwhile, alternately narrated between Renee: a self proclaimed frumpy, poor, 54 year old concierge in Paris who is a closet intellectual and lover of all things beautiful and Paloma: a precocious, rich 12 year old girl who lives in the building and is hopelessly disenchanted with the world of privileged masquerading that surrounds her. They are two of the most winsome characters I have come across in a long time.

My favorite thing about these two seemingly disparate characters is that they, as well as I, watch the world for moments of small beauty and ultimately realize that such times are what lends meaning to life. Barbery's skill in naming these moments so so precisely was so impressive that while reading, I just had to stop. And breathe. Reread. Remember.

"When Manuela arrives, my loge is transformed into a palace, and a picnic between two pariahs becomes the feast of two monarchs. Like a storyteller transforming life into a shimmering river where trouble and boredom vanish far below the water, Manuela metamorphoses our existence into a warm and joyful epic."

"There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading..."

"I know tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?"

I could continue to quote longer passages for quite a while, but the bottom line is this: Renee and Paloma are characters I want to hug and the things they observe in life are given such beautiful, precise language that makes me reconsider how often I settle for using the phrase "this hurts my heart."