Thursday, February 18, 2010

because everyone needs some pablo neruda, even if you think you don't. his poems are good for the winter soul.

Here, There, Everywhere by Pablo Neruda
(Senor Neruda, un dia voy poder leer tu poesia en espanol. 
                                      Mucho amor, Kristen) 

Now the earth is spinning round me,
dizzying me,
like metal at the sound of bells.

Now I have all I have loved
within my little universe,
the starred order of wavs,
the sudden disorder of stones.
Far off, a city in rags
calling me, poor siren,
so that my heart can never, no,
scorn its weight of obligation,
and I with sky and poems
in the light of all I love,
poised here, swithering,
raising the cup of my song.

Oh dawn, breaking out of
the shadow and the moon in the sea,
I always come back to your burning salt.
It is your solitude always which moves me
and, back once more, I don't know who I am.
I touch the hard sand, I look at the sky,
I walk without knowing where I'm going
until out of the night
indescribable flowers rise and fall;
in the salty air
of the coast the stars quiver.

Wandering love, I come back
with this heart both fresh and wearied,
belonging to water and sand,
to the dry spaces of the foreshore,
to the white war of the foam.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Adolescent girl friendships are tricky.  Watching them everyday, I can almost pinpoint which friendships will last through high school for my students and which ones will be left behind, though eulogized in long, flowery messages in their middle school yearbooks; the kind that adults look back on and laugh at the promises to stay friends forever. Yes, those messages still get written.

After reading A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, a young adult Victorian Gothic novel that follows the story of Gemma Doyle and her ability to tap into magical, though dark, outer realms, all I could think about was what defines true friendships for young teenage girls?

Gemma, a new arrival to her boarding school, becomes friends with powerful, popular Felicity because she accidently finds out one of Felicity's biggest secrets.  Instant friendship: go. Gemma has previously been repulsed (and fascinated) by Felicity's treatment of other people, so she pulls her scholarship-roommate, Ann, who has been on the receiving end of Felicity's cruelty into the mix. Instant friendship: go. Pippa is Felicity's beautiful best friend, who is not into the idea of widening their circle, but since Felicity holds the power...instant friendship. Gemma hated the way Felicity and Pippa treated other girls.  Ann was in near constant pain and loneliness as a result.  Felicity cast Pippa to second chair once Gemma came around. Now, these four girls embark on dangerous, otherworldly adventures with Gemma into the realms. Can shared experiences override absolute contradictions in values?

Apparently.  Though I wanted to be a hater immediately and judge Gemma for her lack of strength in succumbing to the rotten social rank at her school when she knew better, there was really no where else for her to go.  It was interesting to watch these characters ultimately just want to be known by someone, and once they were, that seemed to be what bound them together as friends. They began to see that it's harder to judge someone once you get to know them and their story.

When I look at my own friendships--the ones that have lasted over the years (not to devalue the worth of the ones that didn't; the ones that were meant for a time and a place)--there are two major groups of people in my life: ones that I have shared experiences with (the high school version of coming of age, along with the adult version) and ones with whom I share a certain kindredness.  When I started writing this post, I wanted to rage on the ridiculousness of Gemma's friendships, but have realized that no matter what their beginnings, the four girls came to see the world in a different way together. They experienced things together that no one else would understand.  And I still believe that one of the biggest joys in life is to be known and to know others. So. Despite Felicity's power rush and Pippa's vanity, Ann and Gemma each have their own faults, too, and in the act of living their lives as friends they came to show grace toward one another despite it all and grow as people along the way. So. Maybe I shouldn't be such a hater.

Though, I still remain skeptic if the shallowly-based middle school friendships are up for this.  And I still can't stand watching girls exert power over one another.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Does it count as reading if it's grading? Or, creative outlets keep me sane.

My  winter break is off to an excellent start.  The south couldn't handle a few inches of snow, so on my way to Fort Myers, I was rerouted right back to Newark (curses in a million ways over not being able to see two of my favorites in the whole world).  And, this is what is staring me down since I've been back in Brooklyn (and yes, those are notes for future lesson plans written on an airplane napkin. Nothing but class here) : 

So, as of 4 pm today, I finished sixty 7th grade reading responses and thirty 8th grade poetry anthologies. I have thirty 7th grade independent writing projects to go. (This is not inlcluding the 120 projects waiting for me on my desk at school. Teaching English is the best!)  Needless to say, I was losing my mind by the end of today's installment. Anything sounded more entertaining than grading: I distracted myself by filing for a loan forgiveness, planning mother's day gifts for my favorite mom, making a mix cd for my brother and essentially finishing every other possible thing on my to-do lists.  I was feeling productive in a practical sense, but my creativity was at a loss.  So, after being inspired by one of my best friends yesterday, I got crafty.

 I have quite a few stacks of shelter magazines in my apartment that I'm not ready to part with yet (perhaps I need to enlist help from and another growing stack of New York Magazines.  NYM comes every week, and I've realized that if I don't want to become the old lady whose trash you wade through to get to the kitchen table, I needed to recycle them pronto. But before I did that, in the spirit of reusing, I turned some of my favorite articles and photographs into envelopes!

This will also help me be inspired to write real letters an art I have lost in recent years. Anyway, the point is, sometimes it's cooking, sometimes its crafting, sometimes it's writing, sometimes it's walking with a camera in hand, but this reader needs creative outlets.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

on the way to becoming people of weight.

First, Saturday morning rituals on Wednesday? Sigh. Snow days are the greatest. My tea and I are currently sitting next to our bay windows watching snow fall over Brooklyn with The National and Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. Love.  Last night after Lost with some Upper West Side favorites, I walked down Central Park West to 59th Street, feeling no need to get home quickly. The city was so still and the cold was...perfect? (That combination of words rarely comes out of my mouth.) The no wind, refreshing, snow-is-coming kind of cold? I love this city. 

Books that overlap stories and history are some of my favorites. The historical settings in The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver were almost more interesting to me than some of the characters themselves.  The main character floated literally and mentally/emotionally between Mexico and the U.S. between the late 1920s and 1950s.  In Mexico, he worked for Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky.  While in the U.S. his past of consorting with socialists and communists got him into trouble, despite his very private, quiet life in Asheville.  There were two descriptions that stuck with me well after reading:

One, he describes the post World War Two U.S. as "the land of weightless people" who have shed history and their pasts (400) and Americans as people who want to forget all that was painful and trade it in for what was shiny, new and forward reaching.  The psychology of this is understandable, but ultimately pretty unhealthy.

Mexico was different to Harrison.  Upon visiting ancient ruins he said, "It was Mexico. Or rather, Mexico is still what this once was." (493) It seemed to him that Mexicans carried past conquests, losses and beauty with them into the present. 

My question is to what degree are we our own ruins and pasts?  For some, ruins define them: it is  too much to bear, but nonetheless tucked away, carried in pockets each morning and a reminder when grabbing one's wallet or spare change.  For others, the ruins define them for a spell and are irrevocably changed, but the inciting incident can barely be made out in the far reaches of their minds.  And there are those who continually look forward, able to walk away without looking back.  

I think. I think that the ruins make us, but I hope they aren't the only thing that defines us (because there is that word, hope). When Harrison describes Americans as weightless, I don't think that it is a compliment: more of an eerie observation of a people who want only to avoid the painful, confusing or complex, ignoring the realities in front of them.  Ruins can be beautiful and haunting, leaving both scars and inspiration. 

Regardless, one of the most thought provoking quotations from the book seems to be a good way to end: "whatever I came here looking for is hiding, holding its breath," (394).  As we are walking, trying to make sense of it all, we must just keep looking, and in turn become weightier people. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

My mind is about to burst! or, Where do I put all that I have to say?

One of my favorite things going on in my classroom recently are my students reading responses.  Stay with me, I promise this whole post isn't all about teaching.  In an effort to ignite some passion into my students' reading and "writing about reading" lives, I've been doing a weekly reading response where students share their entries out loud with the rest of the class. Not only has it provided a real "audience" and given them motivation to write something they are proud to read, we've been asking questions like what goes into a good reading response? What invites a reader into your writing? 

My 7th graders are basically all stars.  Many of them have started their own reading blogs (heart!) and are growing in sophistication...which makes me scramble for new ways to teach into writing well. This has caused me to think about my own writing process for this blog, in an effort to coach into what writers can do. This is what I've found: (1) I reread all of my underlined notes and dog-eared pages, typing ones that seem weighty into a new post page. (2) I read the ongoing conversations about the book online to help me gain a context/find insight I may not have considered on my own. (3) I try to pull a thread from all of the above to focus on for my post...or, try to choose what might be the most important thread to pull.

The point of this post, is that there are often way too many threads.  Sometimes I miss being an English major so much it hurts because all I want to do is write and talk about books in classes that meet three times a week.  Sometimes one post per book isn't enough (unless people want to read crazy long posts, and let's be honest, I think my parents might be the only ones who would really read every word I wrote. Because they're awesome.) Anyway, you may begin to see "outlier" posts that are less about the book itself and more about some of the ideas that came up within it that I need to think through. I also blame this on the amount of Young Adult fiction I read...when I finally spend time in books on my own reading level, I don't know what to do with myself! 


Saturday, February 6, 2010

The missing piece.

"From a hundred paces, Salome could see the dirt under these girls' fingernails, but not their wings," (12).  This. breaks. my. heart. 

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver gave me so much to think about that I've had a really hard time choosing how exactly to respond.  Its creative structure of journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings and archivist's notes tells the life story of Harrison Shepherd, half Mexican, half American, who begins the story as a a lonely yet adventurous boy on an island in Mexico.  His path crosses with the lives of some of history's most interesting character's: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky.  He goes on to move to North Carolina and lead a very quiet life as a writer.  There aren't enough pages to go into all that the story touches on: The 1932 Bonus March in Washington, DC, the culture of the Red Scare, the relationship between art and for now I will zoom in on what I thought was one of the most relevant themes in the book, the title itself. 

The word lacuna has multiple meanings, but I want to focus on one: it means "the missing piece" and in the story refers to the fact that " can't really know the person standing before you, because always there is some missing piece...That is the heart of the story," (325).  

This is the heart wrenching complexity of human relations: we are quick to judge without knowing someone's story and yet, once we do hear it, there is typically some kind of inner backlash: 

I wish I would have known that.
That completely changes the way I thought of that person.
Oh, it all makes sense. 
Now I'm the ass. 

I like to settle myself into the optimist's camp (that I don't think is mutually exclusive with naivete), believing that if we looked at people differently, the world would change.  It pains me that even as I type this it seems like a banal idea. But really, if we looked for, or even lived under the assumption that everyone has a complex story, layered with wrongs given and wrongs received, fragile hearts despite iron exterior, I think we'd all be a little less angry.  A little less annoyed. A little more forgiving. A little more apt to see the beautiful?

Kingsolver's treatment of this concept in the book is much more deep and complex than I could ever begin to explore in a blog post, but it all underlines what I love about literature: that you get to know the inner lives and motivations of characters and have a bit of a window into humanity.  Kingsolver said in a recent interview:  "Literature will always be political: It cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view." 


Sometimes prose needs line breaks, needs to be read slowly, so that one's heart can feel the weight of the words and break a little, if it must.

that's how thick 
I am, 
I never knew how 
to want 
what everyone wants.  
I only 
to look for a home, some place 
to be taken in. 
Handing over a crumpled heart, 
seeing it dropped 
in the wastepaper basket

(written as prose on page 473, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver)