Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"I put it down on paper and then the ghost doesn't ache so much."

About a million years ago, a good friend of mine mailed me a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and said it would probably change my life. He was right.  This book holds everything I love about literature inside of it--and really, a blog post isn't enough--you should read it and then we should meet for coffee to talk about it.

 It is a collection of snapshots that chronicles the coming of age of Esperanza (in English, hope), a girl growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.  Cisneros' use of vignettes instead of a standard narrative structure captures stolen moments and insights that together create a portrait not just of Esperanza, but of longing and small beauties, anger and angst.  Though short and incredibly readable, this story is complex.  Her poetic style brings the beautifully tragic peripheral characters of Mango Street to life, each desperately seeking freedom, each desperately breaking and inspiring my heart:

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life. 

Alicia, whose Mama died, is sorry there is no one older to rise and make the lunchbox tortillas. Alicia, who inherited her mama's rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university.  Two trains and a bus, because she doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin.

Cisneros gives Esperanza an eye for tiny details and a writer's heart that carries the weight of her neighborhood.  She writes a poem:

I want to be
like waves on the sea
like clouds in the wind
but I'm me.
One day I'll jump
out of my skin. 
I'll shake the sky
like a hundred violins. 

Esperanza, who is not beautiful, but is smart.  Esperanza who is "too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, a tiny thing against so many bricks, who looks at trees." I love picturing this girl gathering her strength and her pen and shaking the sky with all of her might.

Toward the end of the novel, her aunt almost prophesies over her:

You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free.

As a person who writes often, and especially as an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time wondering what exactly this means.  For Esperanza, it helps her to channel her emotions and her anger:

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.  

This is why I love writing--and introducing students to writing.  I have found that the times in my life that I feel most at peace--even if life is swirling in a thousand directions--is when I am writing.  Most of the time it is nothing important, and often words I may never reread.  But just like Esperanza, once I've thought through my life with pen and paper, whatever ghost was haunting me doesn't ache so much.

Esperanza reminds me of so many of my students--trying to figure out what it means to be a young adult, what it means to love, where to put anger, how to be themselves.  They all come from different places, and yet I think that there are vignettes of beauty inside each of them--and that somehow life would make more sense if they understood that.  I'm trying to remember if coming of age novels meant anything to me when I was their age or if I love them now in hindsight after surviving adolescence.

I realize it is naive to think that the world could be saved by writer's notebooks. But perhaps we'd all be a little more emotionally healthy? Free from the demons that eat at us, free from the insecurities that plague us, because we've written them away rather than having them wake us in the morning and whisper to us as we try to fall asleep.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Oskar Schell: tiny existentialist and breaker of of my heart. Or, there is no freedom from feeling.

First, a note. I read and wrote about this book in 2007, claimed it as one of my favorites but haven't read it since.  I've been thinking that I want to start rereading all the books I call my favorites this year. Also, as I mentioned in my last post, all of my recent reads are connected by the thread of freedom and I want to spend some time thinking that through.  So.

Nine year old Oskar Schell's family line includes grandparents who grew up in the same town in Germany and survived the bombing of Dresden during World War Two, but didn't get married until years later after running into each other in New York City.  Their stories are complex and sorrowful, and their marriage a union of two who completely understand loss, and yet the other's presence is a constant reminder of their pain.   The grandfather by this time has given up speaking altogether and communicates only though writing.  In an attempt to not be swallowed by the weight of their grief, they literally made rules for how their apartment and their lives would function: "We made safe places in the apartment where you could go and not exist." 

Interestingly, forty years later, Oskar made rules for his own life to manage his grief over losing his father on September 11th: he finds a key in his father's things and creates a quest to find what it opens: "...until I found it, I didn't love Dad enough."  He is seeking both a reason to exist and a closeness with his father.  I originally wrote about the idea of safety when I first read the book--which is ultimately what these characters are all looking for.  The more I thought about it, I realized how fleeting emotional safety actually is--and I think that Oskar somehow knew this .  Though Oskar shares the tendency toward an existential existence with his grandparents, the rules of his journey come with the hope that he will ultimately find catharsis--and that will free him from his current emotional paralysis and take him back to the safety he felt when he was with his father.  Oskar invents when he is upset, often of ways to keep people emotionally safe: 

"I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn't have to invent a thing."

"We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families and our friends, and even the people who aren't on our lists, people we've never met but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe." 

"In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots." 

"[S]o if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!" 

It is incredibly painful to read this happening to a nine year old boy.

 Emotional safety is fleeting--and that is a tragedy of human existence. The last scene of this book (which I won't tell you because you should really just go read it yourself) pulls my heart in a way that few books can.  And yet, freedom comes from allowing ourselves to hurt--and by that allowance we are not completely swallowed.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Defining Freedom, Part One.

Somehow I've fallen back into the habit of reading and thinking about multiple books at once.  This school year I've been a bit off with my writing about what I'm reading--I have posts planned in my mind that never make it to my laptop.  In the chaos that is now my reading life, though, some unexpected patterns have arisen and I thought it would be interesting to unpack them.  The first will be on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, by title and by topic.  Continuing thoughts will follow about the concept of freedom in my rereading of both Jonathan Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.  I am about to write about the resolution for one of the characters, and while I don't think it won't take away from the book, don't read ahead if you already have Freedom on your book list.  

Freedom is complex and multi-layered, so it is impossible to treat it as a whole in a single post.  The aspect I want to think about comes from the story of the main characters' son, Joey.  He has grown up spoiled by his mother, a disappointment to his father and in general pretty selfish in all of his life pursuits.  He has been in a relationship with the girl next door, two years his senior, since early adolescence.  Their connection and relationship has been a mainstay in his life, to the point where he moved next door as a 17 year old.  Her entire world revolves around him, but when he goes off to college he seeks out girls who would better fit in to his imagined future: sophisticated, wealthy and influential.  However, he remains incapable of severing himself from Connie.  They decide to get married on the spur of the moment, yet keep it secret and Joey is pursuing other girls.  And then.

The freedom that comes from understanding who you are. Joey's moment came when he accidently swallowed his wedding ring and it came back out while he was on a trip with the girl he'd been chasing after for a number of years--the girl who he thought was his fantasy.  But.

"He was the person who'd handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back.  This wasn't the person he thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he'd been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones." (432)

This is the kind of freedom that I'm not sure Joey's parents understood as they were raising him. They seemed to be tip toeing around parts of themselves and restraining opinions in fear and leaving life that needed to be discussed untouched and unexplored--leaving both of them ultimately uncomfortable in their own skin.  Seeing their son understand this before they did--especially when he was trying on so many different personas throughout his college experience--was incredibly surprising as a reader.  I thought that Joey would be the kind of person who is a serial leaver: always looking for the next person who might fit his idea of perfection, never realizing that perfection never exists up close.  That kind of living gives the mirage of freedom, but is actually quite the opposite.

This fall, maybe because I was turning 30 and intentionally thinking about it, I realized that somewhere along the line I became myself: the Ohio and the New York in me all seemed to sort out and settle where it needed to be--and this was incredibly freeing.  To live in a place where you know who you are what what you are seeking allows you to not have the burden of carrying what other people might be thinking.  And of course there is the part about the Truth I believe in--something about the story of grace and love--that leads me to freedom and reminds me of what matters.