Sunday, March 25, 2012

looking for wonder.

This was a timely read so close to The Magicians, in which the main character struggled immensely with finding joy in his life.  Life After God was recommended by my pastor in a sermon over a year ago.  I was fascinated by what he quoted from this fictional story and ordered the book immediately, only to have it sit in my to-read pile for a year.  But, I am glad to have read it in light of both my current mental state and recent reading life.  It seemed to continue the conversations in my mind springing from both places.

The book itself is pocket size, though a couple inches thick. The narrator is a man in his 30s or 40s who is currently separated from his wife and tells his non linear story mostly through vignette-style memories: snapshots of his life and how he got to his current place of thinking, which is filled mostly with sadness a bit of nostalgia.

And then sometimes I think the people to feel saddest for are people who once knew what profoundness was, but who lost or became numb to the sensation of wonder--people who closed the doors that lead us into the secret world--or who had the doors closed for them by time and neglect and decisions made in times of weakness (51).

Wonder reminds me of what it feels like to be truly alive.  I've written about it here, and I'm surprised I haven't written about it more because I would normally describe myself as a person looking out for it.  Though, I think my eye was better trained for wonder in the days when I was writing poetry on a regular basis, so in love with what was in front of me that I couldn't not try to capture it in words.  That's the reason that I could relate to this narrator quite a bit: my sense of wonder has been a bit off recently.  It's the kind of thing I didn't notice until the symptoms of cynicism started manifesting in my life.

I lost my breath a bit when I read the narrator talking about his wife, scared that I saw a bit of her in myself of late:

She remembers when the world was full of wonder--when life was a strand of magic moments strung together, a succession of mysteries revealed, leaving her feeling as though she was in a trance. She remembers back when all it took to make her feel like she was a part of the stars was to simply talk about things like death and life and the universe.  She doesn't know how to reclaim that sense of magic anymore (138).

I think it is the magic that helps us get by; the small moments that remind us of what is beautiful and true, that come as a surprise when the rest of life does not feel beautiful.  It petrifies me to think about life without a sense of wonder.  I've taken to becoming a tourist in my own town, though, this week, snapping signs-of-life pictures.  I know a lot of people who talk about reclaiming their morning for grounding themselves in truth--and I think I need to reclaim my sense of wonder and breathe deeply and spring seeps in once again.  This must be my response to Quentin, from The Magicians, who blocked off his heart to the point that he was completely blind to wonder.
{sunday-six-thirty-light and signs-of-life outside my window}

{hudson street, west village}
{third street, park slope}

Monday, March 19, 2012

Maus and Night: think through WWII and literature with my 8th graders.

The next student book club in my year long line up is Holocaust Literature with graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman and the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel.  I've spent the last month or so reading and trying to figure out how to approach these topics with 8th grade students, wondering if I should have picked an "easier" period of history, (but is there one that isn't filled with darkness?).  While I was rereading Night for the first time since 2004, I kept stopping and wondering if 13-14 year old students were emotionally ready to visualize and process the Holocaust.  I ended up writing a letter to parents making sure that they were ok with the human depravity depicted in the book as well as Wiesel's spiritual struggles.  Every parent agreed and I still fall confidently in that literature is one of the best ways to study history, and where better to learn how to process humanity than in a book club?

We started today with a general overview of World War Two.  Just reading a page brought up some incredible discussions questions:

What happens when a country is focused solely on itself? When is isolationism or distance a healthy choice? Unhealthy? Do the same principles relate to an individual's life?

How do leaders like Hitler and Mussolini gain power? What kinds of situations cause people to look to leaders like them?

Winston Churchill said before the war: "Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor.  They will have war."  We asked questions like: What does this mean? What kind of dishonor is he talking about? Then my students started making connections with this and Terrible Things, the picture book by Eve Bunting that we read during our Social Action unit: that stopping wrong things only when they begin to affect you personally is ethically wrong and made the connection that Churchill believed that looking the other way was dishonorable.

I was so inspired by the energy emitted from my students today and I cannot believe that for a while I doubted whether they would be ready to face such ugliness.  Their insight was incredible and they have not yet even begun to read the books.

The article we read ended with a quote from Franklin Roosevelt, written for a speech that he never got to deliver: "Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships--the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace." Our conversation wandered to my classroom value, posted on the wall, that everyone has a story--and once we get to know that story, we can begin to relate to, empathize with, and care for and understand that person.  All I can say is that studying history well makes us better people.

Miss your old English class?  Read (or reread) Night and/or Maus.  I really believe it is one of the most important works of literature I have ever encountered.  Think through the questions we will be thinking about in our book club:

What is the value of difference? Of human life?

Do the hard truths of human history still impact us? On a corporate level? On an individual level? How? Do you let them impact you?

Why create literature and art in response to history? Why study history through literature and art?

How do we emotionally [and spiritually] process through our history as a people?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Your brain on fiction, courtesy of The New York Times.

{some of my overflow stacks}
Stories. They're good for you!  Read this.  Some bits:

"Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life."
"The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters."

Saturday, March 17, 2012

For those who have been wrecked that they weren't called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it's rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn't have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)

Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in...He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn't going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books--a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  "He'd spent too long being disappointed by the world--he'd spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn't the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, " (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  

When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: "Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They're bored with their lives, and there's nothing they can do about it.  They're eaten alive by longing, and they're dead before they're alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven't been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin's experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: "This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he'd left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn't happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam," (148).

As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children's story), but he's found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: "He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right," (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: "Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him," (311).  

The Magicians could be described as a grown up's Narnia or Harry Potter--it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  

I don't want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn't room for magic--or at least hope.  Reading Quentin's story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin's hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality...Sure you can live out your dreams, but it'll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead...The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 

One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: "Magical thinking: that's what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded," (216).

And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: "The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing--to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from...Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back." Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic--and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman's book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can't decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  

And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  


Saturday, March 10, 2012

"Once you get lost in these woods, believe me, you stay lost."

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami was recommended to me in the fall by a friend and then subsequently fell onto my "books to read someday" list that grows every time I walk into a bookstore.  I'm currently trying to read my way through the stack of unread books in my apartment, though, so I forgot about it.  Then, another friend finished it, shoved it in my hands and declared that we must talk about it while it was still on her mind. So I read it.  And then I learned that yet another friend had fallen prey to Murakami.  She and I talked about it while driving upstate a few weeks ago and realized that there are so many lingering questions that cannot be answered with just one read.

Kafka on the Shore pulled me in, got me thinking and sort of left me there.  It was the kind of reading experience where you finish a book only to realize you need to turn back to page one and start rereading in order to make sense of it.  That is not to say that I didn't follow the story line, but that once I knew how it ended I realized there were details I had brushed past.  I started doing some research and found that Murakami said in an interview"Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It's hard to explain, but that's the kind of novel I set out to write".

Set in Japan, the basic plot of the book is of two main characters, a 15 year old boy who has re-named himself Kafka and a sixty-ish man Nakata, whose stories alternate chapters and begin to run closer and closer together.  Kafka has run away from home, fleeing a prophecy his father shared with him.  Nakata, who is somewhat mentally handicapped due to an incident as a child during World War Two, is fleeing a crime he committed, but felt he was led to commit.  Both characters know they are looking for something, but are unable to say exactly what it is and both begin traveling toward the ocean.  

The whole process of reading this story, and the knowledge that I'll need to reread it, has been on my mind lately.  Especially one sentence that I think encapsulates the entire story and this reading experience.  It is from when Kafka  spends time alone at a new friend's cabin deep in the woods.  His friend warns him to always keep the cabin in view while wandering because "Once you get lost in these woods, believe me, you stay lost, " (116).

At once this became a metaphor for my experience reading this story.  Murakami has put together a narrative that is tied together enough where one can discuss substance and meaning, and yet it is loose enough that nothing ever felt definitive.  When my friend and I were talking about it in the car, we kept coming up with more questions and the knowledge that we'd have to go back and reread and re-discuss, reread and re-discuss.  Obviously, we were left longing for our college literature classes and enough free time to nerd out and follow up with all this thinking.

I've also done a lot of thinking about how there can be mental places that feel like those woods where one can stay lost.  The sense of being lost isn't necessarily bad or good, but rather frustrating and interesting at the same time.  The existential questions that plague me seem to be telling me that no matter how much I try to read the world around me, there may not be a definitive answer to my questions.  And maybe what I need to remember is to keep a metaphorical cabin in my eyesight so that I can find my way home.  Interestingly, toward the end of the book Kafka finds himself once again in these woods and intentionally goes much deeper into them without the thought of making it back to the cabin.  This narrative development throws a wrench into my thinking pattern and loops me back to the idea that once you are lost in the woods, you stay lost.

And sometimes it is easier to to dwell lost than to find a way out.

I had another conversation with a friend about changing habits in the context of changing the patterns of poverty that exist.  In the midst of talking about how easy it is for us to point to someone else and say, well, if you changed your spending habits, you wouldn't be in this situation.  But then my friend mentioned that it was easy for us to think like that when we have healthy spending habits, budgeting knowledge and have had a completely different life story.  She compared it to us trying to rid our diets of all sugars, and how much discipline and will power it would take.  Habits of living--much like habits of thinking--are incredibly difficult to break.

And so.  I am left with wondering what it would take to find my way out of my metaphorical woods.