Saturday, May 29, 2010

3 Books. 1 Train of Thought.

I am reading All the Broken Pieces, set in the United States just after the Vietnam War, to my seventh graders.  For context, I've been teaching lessons on the Vietnam War and its causes, the atmosphere in the United States afterwards and asking students to think about war in general. The main character is a Vietnamese boy, Matt Ping, who has been adopted by an American family. The book is in verse and one of the metaphors that Matt uses is that freedom is the color of his toddler brother's red shoes on the swing.  When I asked my students what they thought that meant, I was blown away by their understanding that demonstrated a (newfound) awareness of the world outside the safety of childhood. In response to the metaphor, a student said that freedom is the ability to live without the burden and weight of the knowledge of things like war.

This came after I realized that my reading life has been inundated lately with the question of how we are meant to live in light of what we know to be true and good. This question is never far from my mind, but I've found easy to hide from.

I am finally reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, which is the story of Chris McCandless: his disdain for modern American culture and his journey across the country and eventually to his death in the Alaskan wilderness, a place where he sought out true existence off of land, inspired by the trancendentalists and Tolstoy and Jack London, completely away from all that society has become and all the ways it burdened him.

Krakauer writes of Chris' love of London: "He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness."  I guess this is the struggle that exists between idealism and realism, which is incredibly frustrating.  The question always becomes how are we supposed to live in a world that is so broken and seems to worship all the things that don't have true value?

Krakauer includes the following quote before a chapter describing Chris' reasons for deserting the lifestyle he was raised in: "To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and rxiles. Here the leaders of the great religious have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality." (Paul Shepard) McCandless was seeking the same kind of exile.  A fiction character who embarked on a completely different kind of exile is John Andrew Corrigan of Let the Great World Spin: 

"Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where he was supposed to go. He stayed where he was needed. He took little or nothing along. He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery...What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth--the filth, the poverty--was that life could be capable of small beauties."  Corrigan was a secret man of faith--who left Ireland to live in the Bronx, bought coffee for the prostitutes he befriended and owned next to nothing. Like McCandless, he gave away almost everything he acquired. But unlike McCandless, he sought out beauty in the people the world forgets rather than in solitude and nature.

So. What all this translates into in my mind is how are we choosing to live?  It is far too easy to slip into patterns that try mimic glossy advertisements and mistake things for reasons for being.  When I read of people like McCandless and Corrigan (though fictional) I always wonder how they live out of such unselfish ideals.  Though, my favorite part of the book is how Corrigan poetically and painfullly grapples with his and humanity's fallenness...and I suppose that it will always be just that: each day making choices for the things that really matter.  Stepping out of the conditioned false securities that we cling to.  Having the courage to be a bit unconventional. 

All that said, I highly recommend all of these books.  

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