Monday, December 30, 2013

My Year as a Reader: Top Ten Books of 2013

I generally count my time in alignment school years: September is the new year and August is the month of reflection and generating new ideas for the coming year, so it's always interesting each December to examine and reflect on the calendar year.  And actually, it's probably healthier to not count my days by my profession.  This year was one of my favorites:

First and foremost, I got engaged on January 1st and our wedding in August was a celebration with family and friends I will truly never forget (especially my grandpa organizing the Yager family at the hotel bar Friday night, dancing to Gloria with my Uncle Bob at the reception, or my Brooklyn girls fulfilling their promise of charging to the dance floor as soon as the music started, hands in the air).

Personally, I have learned so much about paying attention to small moments of beauty and truth, breathing deeply, and taking the time to nurture creativity.  Professionally, this summer I had the opportunity to be inspired by kindred educators at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project's institutes, which has driven so much of the energizing work happening right now in my classroom and my ability to truly celebrate each of my students and their voices.

As a reader, I set a resolution at the end of last year to not buy any new books until I made it through the ones I already owned.  I did pretty well on that until the spring and it completely fell apart once June hit and I decided that summer reading was an exception.  Oops.  But, I did buy a kindle and used the kindle app on my ipad to read multiple book, and learned about how to check out e-books from the library.  Also, I'm such a fan of independent book stores, that it was hard to walk in and NOT buy something, just to show solidarity in their mission, especially Greenlight, Community Bookstore, and Book Court.

Regardless of how I got them, though, below are the ten best books that narrated my whole path this year:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: This was story tucked into story tucked into story, told in a mirror image format that was the most challenging and most thought provoking fiction of the year. I couldn't stop thinking about the thread that tied the narratives together.

Quiet by Susan Cain: The subtitle really says it all for this one--the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking.  This was the best nonfiction book I read all year and help me to not just own my introverted nature, but think about how I can empower my introverted students.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: This short book is for adults who have forgotten the magic of being a child. At once fantastical and realistic, this story was phenomenal and my favorite fiction book of the year.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: My cousin and her son recommended this middle grade book to me and I think it is one of the most important I've ever read about life and loss.  I wept at the end, which is rare for me, and had a hard time recovering--but this is because it beautifully captured so much of what it means to be human.  The illustrations were breathtaking, as well.

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy: Van Booy has become one of my favorite authors because of his poetic style and ability to capture tiny moments of humanity at its most beautiful.  As suggested by the title, it follows multiple story lines to show how people are much more connected to one another than we realize.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson: I read mostly mystery for the month of August and this was my favorite by far.  Atkinson's protagonist is born in 1910 and the story continually resets itself and re-imagines what her life may have looked like.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: This memoir is one of the most discussed books of the year and Deraniyagala's story of grief after losing her husband, sons, and parents in the 2004 tsunami is heart-wrenching, powerful, brave, and important.

Everyday by David Levithan: This book was by far my favorite Young Adult read of the year.  The protagonist is, essentially, a soul--s/he inhabits a different body each day and the reader gets to experience this unique voice and watch as s/he tries to craft a life outside the inhabitation s/he cannot control.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown: By far the most transformative nonfiction/personal growth book of the year, especially for this Type A/Oldest Child combination.  She helped me find some grounding and do a lot of the thinking work that propelled me from May onward through the year.

1,000 Mornings by Mary Oliver: This short book of (accessible!) poetry grounded me as the seasons changed and helped put some of the wisdom I took from Brene Brown to work.

(Looking for more recommendations for your reading year? Click here to read my year in review posts since 2007.)

As always, I'd love to hear your best recommendations & reading plans for the new year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The magic of paying attention: Mary Oliver's "A Thousand Mornings"

{photoshop image, The Octopus Garden}

wrote about my favorite album of the year, Over the Rhine's Meet Me at the Edge of the World, back in September, which became an anchor for my soul this fall: an album I returned to countless times to be reminded of beauty and truth and the way I wanted to live. I also shared a link to an article I loved about their writing process.  In it, I found we shared a few common inspirations, which led me to check out some of the writers they mentioned, including Mary Oliver.  

Oliver's work is rooted in observing nature and cultivating a sense of place and in a quest to feel more grounded and aware, I took to reading her poetry collection A Thousand Mornings one poem at a time each day with my breakfast throughout October and November.  What I found while reading her work was that I began to look at the world around me in a different way.  Even though I live in a city, my eyes were sharpened and my breath deepened as I watched the rhythms of autumn and early winter around me.  I found myself staring at the patterns of leaf veins, and letting falling snow calm me down. 

I came across the image I included above while researching Oliver, and it has become a guide for me in pursuing a watchful spirit and a creative life.  Looking for reasons to be amazed, and living a life filled with wonder--especially when they don't cost a dime--is a game changer. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Everything was safe and good: transitioning from childhood adulthood

I recently finished The Round House by Louise Erdich, which is the story of 13-year-old Joe who lives on a reservation in North Dakota in the late eighties whose mother is brutally attacked and changes everything he held to be true.  On a large scale, this book brought to light the inane politics and laws surrounding crimes  against Native Americans by non Native Americans, both on and off the reservation land.  And on a smaller, it shows how people move from being the protected and defended as children to wanting to be a protector and defender.

If you've been reading here lately, I've been thinking a lot about living with a sense of rootedness--so when life gets busy or difficult, I am able to remember deep truths about life--and this lens is informing my entire reading life and what stands out to me in a text, and this book is no different. There is a moment mid-story when Joe hears his parents come home and instead of his father sleeping in the guest room, as he had been doing on request since the attack, they both went into their shared room: "I heard them shut their door with that final small click that meant everything was safe and good (210)."

There are things as children that enable us to feel secure and be able to rest.  (I've written about it before here and here.)  Part of growing up is becoming aware that life is fragile and often uncontrollable.  I often miss the sweetness of being young and thinking that everything "was ok" once both my parents made it home from work and we were all safe in the house.  And yet, I'm convinced that there is still truth behind feeling safe: resting in the fact that I am not in control, seeing patterns in the natural world, and knowing there is something bigger beyond that holds us together as humans.  It's a sense of safety that allows me to breathe deeply and not live in fear.

My school had our "Quality Review" last week and in the months, weeks, and days leading up to it, life at work was tense and stressful--a constant balancing act of hearing about the politics of education and things I needed to check off my list to play the game and remembering to look at my students and see them as people and remembering why I love my job in the first place.  On the second morning of the review, it started to snow pretty heavily.  My stomach was still in the knots it curled into since September, so I decided to take a minute in each class and turn off the lights and direct my students' eyes outside.  We sat in silence and watched the snow fall for a few moments and took deep breaths.  It was amazing.  And healing.

I am trying to cull my inner Mary Oliver (more on her poetry soon) and allow the both the tradition of family and rhythms of nature (yes, even here in the city) to remind me that there are seasons, there is beauty, and within each there is safety: here is the snow that comes every year.  It is cold, but it is beautiful.  Thinking I am "safe" it does not come quite as easily as it did when I was a child, but it is there, still.  

In the story, in a moment when he needs it most he wears his father's shirt to gather strength.  As an adult he wears his father's ties.  He is able to draw strength from tradition and memory and pattern and move forward, even when safety can't be defined as the click of a doorknob.  And this is what I am thinking on as I get ready to go home for Christmas: the strength I can draw on from the rhythms my family has created and the beauty and truth that lay hidden beneath.  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Gift of Solitude: applicable to all adults, as described in a young adult novel.

If there is one thing I try to share with my students throughout the year, it's the idea that each one of them has a story: that you can never know someone's story just by looking at them, that it is one of life's greatest gifts to get to hear other people's stories, and that it is a privilege for me to get to know theirs throughout the course of the year.  My hope is that they will take the time to really know one another and build a community of understanding, respect, and kindness.  

And then I had a moment where I met a protagonist I wanted every student to know:

If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: We all want everything to be okay (page 6).

The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common (page 77).

In my experience, desire is desire, love is love.  I have never fallen in love with a gender. I have fallen for individuals.  I know this is hard for people to do, but I don't understand why it's so hard, when it's so obvious (page 142).

A handful of my students were raving about Everyday by David Levithan in our weekly "Friday Favorites" five minute share and after hearing the premise, I knew I wanted to check it out.  The protagonist, A, is essentially a soul (without a gender): s/he wakes up in a new body everyday while maintaining a fully developed sense of self--just no physical body with which to express him/herself.  This is one of the most thought provoking and creative young adult books I've ever read.  It touches on so many young adult emotional-development issues, but not in a preachy way: the protagonist authentically brings them up and because his/her life experience is so different than the average human, and based on what I've witnessed in my classroom, I think young adult readers will just soak it in.  

But I also found a section that spoke into everything I've been thinking about lately: maintaining a sense of self, of peace, of purpose.  He falls for the girlfriend of a [horrid] guy whose body he occupies for a day and then ends up maintaining a relationship with her--his/her first ever--though each day s/he is in a new body. S/he sees the stress she deals with and the broken, hurtful relationship she is in.  When s/he unexpectedly wakes up in her body one day, he decides to try to give her the gift of peace in solitude and goes for a long hike.  The description he uses is amazing: 

I've decided to give Rhiannon the satisfaction of being fully alone.  Not the lethargy of lying on the couch or the dull monotony of drifting off in math class.  Not the midnight wandering in a sleeping house or the pain of being left in a room after the door has been slameed shut.  This alone is not a variation of any of those.  This alone is its own being.  Feeling the body, but not using it to sidetrack the mind.  Moving with purpose, but not in a rush. Conversing not with the person next to you, but with all of the elements.  Sweating and aching and climbing and making sure not to fall, not to get too lost, but lost enough...When no one else is around, we open ourselves to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer (197-198).

I meet monthly with some friends and we talk about the creative pursuits in our lives and what we are learning about ourselves in the process.  It has become a treasured time for me.  My November wasn't as creative as I planned: I made some substitutions for painting and calligraphy in the name of stress and exhaustion and travel, which at the time seemed justifiable.  I realized, though, that my substitutions weren't the same, even though I was technically "doing nothing." I realized once again that I need to spend intentional time opening myself "to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer"--whether that enormity is staring at sky behind the branches of newly leafless trees, breathing in the scent of my Christmas tree, or taking out my paints and ink to let go and create.

Here's to a beautiful winter season filled with beauty amidst the darkness.

(And here are some other winter thoughts in case you, too, struggle with the fact the sun goes down at 4:30, or just need some context and/or hope from someone who is often winter-hopeless).

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Help. Thanks. Wow.

In following with the month of November and trying to lead a life where its richness and depth trumps my to-do lists, and in the same vein as pursuing a life that described in this post about Brene Brown's The Gift of Imperfection, I've been trying to keep a journal for a few minutes each morning for what I am thankful for: the small things like miniature pumpkins and the big ones like my family alike.  

This morning I am thankful for Anne Lamott and also her short book on prayer: Help, Thanks, Wow.  I first read Anne Lamott ten years ago when we had to read her book about writing Bird by Bird for a class.  Randomly afterward I realized I had a handful of friends who were really into her book Travelling Mercies, which is about her faith and was such a refreshing read.  I'm thankful for a writer who can mentor me through a season of wanting to let go of my anxiety and frantic pace.

There are three sections, each dedicated to a word in the title, and she walks the reader through admitting we don't know what to do, the art of gratitude, and the way that wonder can change us and the way we see the world.  I could subtitle this book "breathing deep through all the things," because she describes how these prayer rhythms anchor her as a person able to face life with courage.  It reminded me what a gift centeredness can be.

So I just want to share two excerpts and throw them out into the universe in the hope that someone will connect with them as well, and feel just a little bit more full today:

Without revelation and reframing, life can seem like an endless desert of danger with scratchy sand in your shoes, and yet if we remember or are reminded to pay attention, we find so many sources of hidden water (page 53).  

We're individuals in time and space who are gravely lost, and then miraculously, in art, found...In paintings, music, poetry, architecture, we feel the elusive energy that moves through us and the air and teh ground all the time, that usually disperses and turns chaotic in our busy-ness and distractedness and moodiness.  Artists channel it, corral it, make it visible to the rest of us.  The best works of art are semaphores of our experience, signaling what we didn't know was true but do now (page 82).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Teen decisions: passion, idiocy, or both? Or, Character Analysis and the Prefrontal Cortex.

One of the things I'm most interested in thinking about right now is the human brain during teenage years and the early twenties.  I just completed a project for graduate school about social emotional learning and development and was amazed by all adults can do to enrich and equip the emotional health of teenagers.  Working with young people who are crossing over the bridge in development where their ability to comprehend language and speech is mostly complete into frontal lobe development is a fascinating, though sometimes exhausting, place to spend my working hours. According to Psychology Today "Fifteen-year-olds have not yet fully developed the ability to understand the consequences of their actions and act accordingly. They have difficulty with planning and organization, and learning from their mistakes. They often act impulsively or inappropriately, they have roller-coaster emotions, and working towards distant goals rather than being unduly influenced by immediate rewards is a stretch for them...The brain evolved in this way for a good reason. Teenagers need to take risks in order to make the leap from home and reliance on parents to independence."  

Not only is this directly tied to my profession, but it has become a fascinating topic of conversation with my friends and peers in recent years as we think back and study patterns, passions, and behaviors of our own teenage years and early twenties.  For most of us, it was a time of great desire to connect with something, though the means to attain the nondescript something may have varied under the large umbrella of simply wanting to feel alive: music, faith, the outdoors, literature, sports, theater, justice.  We took risks of all kinds in order These roots remain in each of us still, and yet the highs and the depths we felt seem like distant acquaintances, or as though they have gone through a strainer of life experience, wisdom, and perspective.  My thoughts are ongoing.  

Overlapping these trains of thought was my reading of The Secret History by Donna Tartt over the past few weeks.  It was published in 1992 and unbeknownst to me, a cult classic, especially among people who were teenagers or college students when it came out.  It is the story of a tightly knit group of friends at a small, private college in Hampshire.  They are privileged, passionate classics majors who shun the traditional college scene for lives steeped in nostalgia for ages past and a devotion to their father figure professor Julian.  The narrator Richard, speaking many years removed, reveals how he providentially obtained a scholarship, left home, shamelessly lied about his past and became a part of this group of friends. He opens the story confessing to the group murder of one of its own that occurred not long after he learns of the dark place their thirst for something more took them.

After doing some research I learned Tartt called it not a whodunit, but a "whydunit": the reader knows immediately where the book is headed (with a twist or two) and along the way is able to watch the motivation, justification, and aftermath.  This book was one of those long ones that is fun to sink into--the kind where I can't just pick up another book after completing it because I'm not ready to completely leave it behind.

What I've been left with as I consider  the book is a bit of character analysis through the lens of the prefrontal cortex, though I will only provide the questions as I don't want to give the story away.  I love the line with which Julian opened their classes: "I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?" It brought me back to my own teenage years which were ripe with the longing for something bigger, for meaning, for something to get lost in.  But, what did this invitation into the sublime do for these characters in particular? What does the sublime offer us as adolescents? As adults? What do we lose and gain as we develop? 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Brene Brown, game changer.

I first heard of Brene Brown last winter when my friend Lindsay told me I had to watch her TED talk called "The Power of Vulnerability." It was a game changer for my emotional health, y'all.  Then Lindsay and I decided we would both read her book The Gifts of Imperfection and it was the perfect follow up for helping me process through what it means to live with meaning and purpose and without anxiety.  Reading the book and reflecting on Brown's research and how it related to my life has been an incredibly powerful experience.  I've slowly and reflectively read this book over the past five months or so. This post is a little vulnerable, but I think Brene Brown would be in favor of me sharing and owning these pieces of my story.

My core spiritual beliefs (grace, love, forgiveness, stillness) have remained much the same over the years, but there came a time when I had to face the fact that from every angle I was hearing: strong people of faith ________.  As a high achieving people pleaser, for many years I ran without stopping in my volunteer work, my actual work, and in the commitments I made in my free time.  Sometimes despite hearing an overarching message of grace and love, I felt as though I was constantly not measuring up to what I was "supposed" to be doing, which was difficult for a perfectionist (though now I consider myself a recovering one) and felt as though I had to be apologetic for my introverted nature.  I've taken the past few years to redefine what a spiritual life looks like for me and to (finally) learn to be ok with the fact that it does need to look like anyone else's.

A lot of authors have mentored me through this journey: Mother Theresa with Come Be My Light, Anne Lamott with Traveling Mercies and Bird by Bird, Joan Didion with The Year of Magical Thinking, Susan Cain with Quiet, Colum McCann with Let the Great World Spin, Eric Metaxes with Bonhoeffer, and of course the poetry and music of Over the Rhine.  What I appreciate about Brene Brown is that her book seemed to pull together all of these literary influences and helped me to redefine and find freedom in what spirituality looks like for me.

In the journey of trying to define what my spiritual life looks like now, it honestly can be easy to simply not think about it, thus avoiding existential dilemmas.  But, the anxiety that so easily creeps in reminded me that being grounded and intentional is life giving and I noticed that not having an intentional grounding in faith, I became less hopeful in general, a bit cranky, and I forgot to look for beauty.  Brown's definition of spirituality piqued my interest because I was (still am) so tired of the minutia of Christian theology:  "By spirituality, I'm not talking about religion or theology, but I am talking about a shared and deeply held belief.  Here's how I define spirituality: Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in compassion.  Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives" (64).  

When she wrote "It's not about denominations or dogma. Practicing spirituality is what brings healing and creates resilience. For me, spirituality is about connecting with God, and I do that most often through nature, community, and music.  We all have to define spirituality in a way that inspires us,"(74)  I was reminded of the life nature gives me and how washing dishes or walking with music centers me, and how dinner with my husband and great friends grounds and connects me.

One of the messages I have struggled with as a Christian is that "everything happens for a reason," which I simply cannot buy into no matter how many scripture based conversations I have.  This felt really isolating, especially in the early days of this journey.  I have landed in a place of confidence and rest with this issue and others, and reading Brown's book helped give greater clarity to me: "At first I thought faith meant 'there's a reason for everything.'  I personally struggled with that because I'm not comfortable with using God or faith or spirituality to explain tragedy...Here's how I define faith based on research interviews: Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of certainty" (90).  Faith as a beautiful mystery has been one of the most healing perspectives I've run across.  

To close, one of my favorite parts of the book was when Brown discussed the fact that we can change our neurological pathways, something one of my old pastors used to talk about, too.  It is possible to physiologically change our patterns of thinking (google neuroplasticity).  I'm now living in a way where I am trying to incorporate rhythms into my life that help me feel grounded, connected, grateful, and covered in grace.  This is happening for me through reading, taking time to be creative (watercolor and calligraphy lately), cooking, looking for beauty, and  practicing stillness.  It looks different, but feels beautiful.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Literature and Loss: Wave

I am currently taking an elective for graduate school called Death Education.  It sounds off-putting and dark, but was described for me as a class that every teacher should take.  It also meets for two weekends, so with those two endorsements, instead of trekking up to Teachers College once a week from Brooklyn, I decided to enroll.  One of the first topics we discussed together was the emotional impact of loss of any kind: from an object to moving, divorce to faith, confidence to health and of course the death of loved ones.

There is freedom in the angle with which we approach our research assignments and projects, so I am approaching the topic through the lens of what I do: an English teacher.  My thinking has been mostly applied to the treatment of death in young adult literature and the impact it has on its readers and my conclusion has been that young adults need to have access to books by trusted authors about death and loss because not only do they teach so much about life and loss.  Books I've referenced with my students are ones like Bridge to Terabithia, A Monster Calls, Counting by Sevens and the Harry Potter series. Revisiting these titles has taught me so much about grief and emotional endurance and survival, especially as we are dealing with the tragic loss of one of their classmates.

Meanwhile, I just finished reading the highly acclaimed memoir by Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave, which chronicles her story of grief after losing her two sons, husband, and both parents in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.  It is a story of such weight that I feel inept to say anything except I find it important to read and understand the stories of individuals alongside the over arching stories of the tsunami as a whole. In the same way that the young adult literature I have studied provides resources for my students, this book walks its reader through loss at its most intense--and rather than feeling like a voyeur of someone else's hurt, it caused me to connect deeply with what it means to be human and I'm deeply grateful for  Deraniyagala's strength to share this story with us.  It was as significant a read to me as Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking.

At this point, all I can say is I'm thankful.

I am thankful to authors who courageously write through their experience and share it so readers can be changed by their examination and process. I am thankful to authors whose writing enables me to understand humanity: my own and that of each of the living souls around me.  I am thankful to authors who write about the hardest things so I can glean some of their courage when I face them myself.  I am thankful to story and its ability to help us heal.

Monday, October 14, 2013

More Than This

 I read (and wept through) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness this summer, about a boy processing that his mother isn't going to survive her cancer.  When I saw he had a new title out, I was quick to pick it up and I can confidently say I've never read a book like More Than This: it straddles science fiction and mystery while having 3 beautifully written, realistic characters.  Interestingly, it also deals with death: the first chapter starts with the narrator, Seth, drowning in the ocean near his home.  From there, he wakes up in some kind of afterlife, which he spends the length of the book trying to figure out while simultaneously facing some of the hardest, most difficult, as well as the most poignant moments of his prior life, covering namely loss, parent/child relationships, teenage friendship, identity, and first love.

To write too much about the plot and this afterlife of Ness's creation would be to ruin the experience of reading the book (which I highly recommend), so I'm going to focus on a few of the life philosophies of some of the characters.  Ness weaves these philosophies not so much for the reader to choose one, but for the reader to become aware of some of the many complex ways people use to make their way through life, as Seth faces both his current life and what he finds as both of his former lives and attempts to cull meaning from each of them.

The hopeful. Seth's friend and first love Gudman says multiple times throughout the book in Seth's memory: "There's always beauty if you know where to look."  This phrase haunts Seth in his deepest moments of pain.

The seeker of meaning and the cynic.  Seth spends much of his time in the afterlife trying to figure out a greater narrative for what is happening to him.  Regine, one of the two people he meets there says: "People see stories everywhere...That's what my father used to say.  We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn't true.  We have to lie to ourselves to live.  Otherwise we'd go crazy."

The escapists. When his parents are considering a scientific, virtual escape from their lives after a tragedy Seth father shares: "You mean Lethe. The river of forgetfulness in Hades.  So the dead don't remember their former lives and spend eternity mourning them."  

This brings us back to the title--there must be More Than This.  There are parts of life that seem to make no sense and we must seek to find answers.  We must know the present reality isn't always the only truth. Ness seems to be saying the answer doesn't lie within a singular philosophy, but in a complex matrix.  The older I've gotten, the more I appreciate openness to mystery and the more I've started accepting living in uncertainty.  That doesn't mean I don't have some anchors set down in a few key places, just that this life is so much bigger than I ever imagined.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Age of Miracles & maintaining a sense of self

Months ago I saw the book The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walkder and added it to books I wanted to read, namely because it sounded like a good next step for my 8th graders who had read every futuristic, dystopian novel in the young adult section and were ready for an adult level book.  I ran into it the while browsing in the digital books collection of the Brooklyn Public Library and decided it should be my first library ebook.

The premise of the story is that one seemingly typical morning, people wake up to a news story that states the rotation of the earth has shifted and minutes have been added onto the day.  This continues and throws the entire world into a frenzy as the governments decide to remain on 24 hour clock-time which, as the days grow longer, can mean the waking "day" is completely in the dark and the sun is shining brightly while people are sleeping at "night."  Of course there are people who decide to rebel and let their circadian rhythms readjust, but soon the days become 48 hours long.  Some people become afflicted with sickness, tides are shifted way off and coasts flood, the magnetic field is damaged and the sun's rays become so dangerous that people do not walk into the sun anymore.

What I kept thinking about was that even though there were life changing and life threatening conflicts, people needed to maintain a sense of self in the face of it all--and that may be what enables them to face the conflicts with courage. This made me start thinking about when everything in life feels like it is being thrown off--when the earth's rotation in this story is like a metaphor for our lives--how do we cope? 

I've been thinking a lot lately about the importance of taking the time to do the things that are good for my soul--even if that means not finishing everything on my to do list.  Or even if it means deciding to paint or bake instead of sitting in front of another crime show--which feels relaxing for the moment, but doesn't impact my sense of well being in the long run. 

What was devastating in the book was when the government decided to make a time capsule of sorts so that if civilization were destroyed, people of the future would have an understanding of the age.  Inside the capsule, though, was a disc that contained information about how civilization worked: the internet, government systems, medical advances.  Our narrator, who is telling the story from her mid twenties about her 12 year old self said: "Not mentioned on the disc was the smell of cut grass in high summer, the taste of oranges on our lips, the way sand felt beneath our bare feet, or our definitions of love and friendship, our worries and our dreams, our mercies and our kindnesses and our lies," (267).  These are the things of actual life.  The things that she shares throughout the length of the book itself.  And that, is a beautiful and clever idea from the author: it is the stuff of stories that make life worth living.  (It reminded me a lot of this book, which I also wrote about here.)

And so, I've tried to be in pursuit of these things that remind me of the goodness of life; the things that store up strength for later and can provide true comfort.  For me, that has meant art and cooking real meals and going for runs in Prospect Park to soak in the season.  Having these rhythms in place keeps me grounded when life seems to throw everything else off.  And that in and of itself, constitutes a miracle.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Feeling September-ish. Or, how Over the Rhine reinvigorated my life last weekend.

This post switched directions a number of times as I wrote it this morning.  There are just a lot of big ideas swirling in my brain this week about music and art and words.  The short version is that music and lyrics breathe life into us.  If you want to take the long way around, read on.

Perfection, to me, often involves traveling with the right kind of music.  In college, I drove on State Route 73 in southwest Ohio at least three times a week.  Most of the time it was early evening when the light softens or at night--and out there you can see so many stars because Oxford, Ohio is surrounded by farmland.  Since I was in Oxford from September-May, these drives often were accompanied by open windows and the heat on my feet.  And of course, the right kind of playlist.  My car became a sanctuary of sorts that allowed me to have time and space to think by myself and my music--the 5 inch binder of CD options--was what spoke to me.  I'm realizing looking back just how important those moments of listening to music and lyrics was to my mental and emotional health.  Those were the days when music like Over The Rhine and Ryan Adams and Patty Griffin were brand new to me.  I heard Bela Fleck's Big Country for the first time.  The Dixie Chicks threw some attitude into my country music and Nickel Creek pulled me into bluegrass.

Since moving to New York ten years ago, my rhythms with music have changed considerably, mostly because one can't take the subway and look out on farmland at the same time.  Ten falls ago I walked with my tea to the Hudson River at Riverside Park seeking healing from homesickness and took the music that felt like home, namely the OTR's Ohio album.  When I moved downtown my river walks and runs changed me along with Iron and Wine and Sufjan Stevens and of course Drunkard's Prayer.  When I moved to Brooklyn, I commuted by foot and rotated The Head and the Heart, Fleet Foxes, Alicia Keys, Miranda Lambert through the streets of my neighborhood, along with a heavy dose of The Long Surrender.

Last March I moved out of the apartment I lived in by myself into one a stone's throw from work. It took me five months to realize that music wasn't playing in the way it once was.  Luckily, this realization came right before a new school year started, and therefore is helping to set the tone for this new season of my life.  September is essentially my new years, after all.  I was lucky enough to escape to Cape Cod during the four days before school started and poetically, Over the Rhine just released their latest album. I knew that to appreciate it fully I needed to hear it not just while doing dishes in my apartment, but away from the city.  I had just read an article about their writing process and learned that my life-line song on their last album was inspired by one of my favorite poets, Adam Zagajewski.  I also read how one of the new songs was inspired by Anne Lamott.  It all seemed too perfect a way to start a new year of teaching reading and writing--and to be reflective and writerly along the way.

So, I was with kindred music listeners.   We put it on as soon as we got past anything that felt like city life, and my ability to breathe deeply coincided with Karin Berquist's voice and Linford Detweiler's piano and the rapid increase in trees outside my window.  That was when I was reminded of driving on 73 in my home state--where the music and the lyrics hit you right where they need to and your lungs can fill with air again.

So all weekend, on near empty beaches, with coffee and Bailey's, and in a hooded sweatshirt I listened to Meet Me At the Edge of the World and felt whole and at home.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Summer Reading Conclusion

I write about it every year, but never have I been more grateful for the rhythm of summer to work its wonders in my overwhelmed teacher brain.  This year in particular I was able to be re-inspired and energized professionally by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Institutes in July, take a few weeks to read, breathe and finalize details for my wedding, then celebrate getting to spend the rest of my life with the best guy I'll ever know with my favorite people in the world.  We were able to escape and soak in the Cinque Terre, Florence, and Barcelona.  And suddenly I found myself excited to be thinking about September, my new students, and who we will all be as readers and writers.   Here's the text journey that got me to this place. I posted in mid June about my plans, which included curling up with some nonfiction, but that never happened.  I think in the summer, especially, I just want to get lost in a good story.  I've starred the ones that I'd most highly recommend.

I call these books the "I commuted for over two hours every day" collection from late June/early July.  You can also tell by the fact that I blogged extensively in my early summer days that I was ready to really think about what I was reading.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman**
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy**

These books are the "I need a vacation and only want to read mysteries" collection from August.  You can tell by the lack of blog posts about these books that I was either on vacation or starting to plan curriculum, so I haven't written about these yet. The first three I read on my Kindle--as a e-book newbie.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson**
The Stone Cutter by Camilla Lackburg
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Young Adult:
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness**
I am J by Cris Beam
Playground by 50 Cent
Nothing to Fear by Jackie French Koller

On my parents' porch, as always, I read The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.  However, I didn't write about it this year because this was in the three days before my wedding. I did post about it on instagram, though! A picture is a text, too, you know:)

Happy September.  Enjoy the new starts, the school supplies, the football, the pumpkin spice.  Sigh.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Reflections on my first month of E-Reading

If you were to walk into my apartment, you would find three industrial sized shelves filled with books that we were certain would be ample space for a growing library, but were filled to the brim by the time we were done unpacking.  My piles of books have grown to the coffee table, living room floor, and of course my nightstand.  I'm old fashioned in that not only do I love the smell of paper books, old and new, I also think that stacks of beloved books are one of the best ways to decorate a home.  My old studio apartment didn't have room for shelves, so they were stacked into piles all around the periphery and somehow that worked, too.

So you'd understand how strange it was as I got more involved in education conversations about technology in the classroom and the tug I began to feel that I needed to (gah!) give the whole e-reading thing a shot.  I knew I'd be traveling for most of August, ten days of which internationally.  The last time I traveled for more than a week my books took up more space in my carry-on than my clothes, so I decided that summer travel would be the best time to start AND be excited about e-books.  (My chiropractor is also excited because he would shake his head every time he saw me reading a crazy heavy book that I'd lugged all over the city.)  I bought a kindle.  I downloaded the kindle app on my iphone.  I also got an ipad mini somewhere in the mix. Off I went.  Here's what I learned:

  • It was difficult to get used to the buttons on the kindle.  I kept thinking the one on the right should be forward and on the left should be backward.  That is not the case, which took me the length of my entire first book to master.  I'm getting old. 
  • The kind of book I'm reading seems to matter.  While in a more "literary" book, I am much more apt to want to go back and reread certain parts or backtrack a bit to draw connections, etc.  While reading Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, I repeatedly wanted to go back to earlier parts due to the structure and nature of the story, but it was really cumbersome so I mostly gave up.  (Maybe this will help my memory? Rewire some parts of my brain as I try to hold onto more details?)  However, this wasn't an issue at all while reading Camilla Lackburg's thriller The Stonecutter.  
  • Taking notes is now both easier and harder.  By nature I don't like clutter, so I've been happy to embrace the "notebook" app on my iphone for shopping lists and using pinterest instead of pulling out sheets from magazines.  It was hard for me to not be able to actually underline.  I'm working on digital underlining and note taking.  I think I'll get there.  My kindle isn't a touch screen, so that was another interesting aspect of the kind of technology I've grown accustomed to using. 
  • While traveling, my carry on bag and suitcase were so much lighter.  I kind of didn't know what to do with myself at the airport.   However, I needed a backup to occupy my mind until all electronic devices were cleared! My husband made fun of me that I couldn't just sit--but I'm sure there are other crazies who don't want to lose a half an hour of solid reading time! Luckily I had my most recent New York Magazine in my purse as well.  Maybe one day I'll be able to just sit and think on a plane. Or the subway. Or in line.  
  • I love the ipad app for one of my favorite cookbooks:  Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.  LOVE.  Also, I am into the magazine apps for ones I subscribe to like Bon Appetit and New York Magazine.  That was a surprise. 
  • E-reading gave me a lot of insight into my job: I was aware of my own "moves" as a reader and I began to see how some traditional teaching methods--like annotating and using post its--might not be applicable to all of my students anymore.  Trying out note taking strategies on my devices was definitely helpful as my students become increasingly more digital and less analog.  I'm dreaming about loading up kindles with series books for students and having them available for checkout.  I found out that the Brooklyn Public library has a huge selection of ebooks of all kinds using the Overdrive app for devices.  These are game changing developments for classrooms like mine where I'm dying to get more books in front of my students.  (Next up: getting out of the dark ages in NYC schools and starting a "Bring Your Own Device" policy!) The implications of knowing your "stats" automatically without an annoying (thought educationally helpful) reading log seems genius!
  • It's really easy to get a book, which is good and bad.  One of my friends said that she reads so much more because it's so easy to get books to read from home--and studies back up that notion: convenience makes more avid readers.  One of my favorite things to do is to browse in a bookstore and that is generally how my (digital-ha) list of books to read grows.  As convenient as e-readers are, I passionately support independent booksellers and this is a palpable tension because I try to go out of my way to purchase books from them and only go to the megastores if I'm in a pink or can't find what I'm looking for. But, to close this post, I'll share my recent find on my e-reading journey: 

This posting from Galleycat helped me find ways I can still support independent stores and enjoy the convenience of not having a 15 pound purse.  I'll let you peruse at your leisure, but the bottom line is that there are a lot of independent stores now selling ebooks on their websites.  Not all, but I can still support some of my local favorites like Greenlight Bookstore.

I'll be sure to share more on my e-reading experience, but I'm most enjoying it due to my lightened load and the way it's making me think about my students' experiences and engagements.  I still love curling up with an actual book and I still have science fiction nightmares a la the paperless world Super Sad True Love Story, and percentages will never be as satisfying as holding 3/4 of a book in my left hand, but I'm going to keep at it for now.

Monday, July 22, 2013

How do you write a blog post about the human condition? It's impossible. Have a book club instead: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera was the first book of the Southwest Ohio Expats Summer Book Club.  Probably the most philosophical book I've read so far this summer, it had me on my toes: needing to research and discuss and think, which is why I think I've put off writing about it for a month.  I'm just not sure how to respond in a single blog post.  Before I can get to any kind of reflection, I have to provide a bit of context.

The story is set in 1968 during the Prague Spring, a brief period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia during its  domination by the Soviet Union.  He opens the novel with a debate between two seemingly opposing philosophies (that took a while to wrap my head around and I still feel as though I haven't yet).  First,  Nietzsche's idea of eternal return: that because we cannot repeat our single life, it means nothing.  That if we were able to repeat our lives an infinite number of times, "the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make."

Kundera then asks: is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? He says that the heaviest burdens crush us and bring us closer to the earth and in turn more real and truthful.  Then "the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights...his movements as free as they are insignificant (5)."  And so we are left with the choice of whether we prefer weight or lightness, which becomes the question he explores through the characters of the novel.  Some move through their existence with the ability to (mostly) keep a distance from attachment and live "lightly" without the existential burdens, believing that there is only the present moment and no ultimate meaning, but still are not necessarily fulfilled.  Other characters, weighed down, wish they could learn lightness (143), but cannot stop their tendency to take meaning from the world and deeply struggle mentally.

The most shocking part of the book for me was the emotional response I had to the death of two of the characters' dog at the end of the book--and I think that perhaps Kundera designed the story in this way. The dog was the only character who seemed happy and peaceful himself and who brought true happiness and peace to the characters.  My book club ended up discussing if Kundera was suggesting that the best way to cope with life is to become animalistic--to lose the constant struggle of lightness and heaviness and just be? But to do so is to lose all that makes us human.  And so the struggle goes on and on, hence the title: the unbearable lightness of being.

Gah.  So we sat at an Upper West Side kitchen table trying to figure it all out--we are all people who feel the weight of the world but who also get caught up in the beauty.  And though Kundera by the end seems convincing that being human is a burden, none of us were convinced it was a sustainable philosophy for life--nor that life philosophy could be reduced into something simplistic.   The question of heavy and light is basically the human condition and we can wrestle with and stew with the burdens knowing that there are reprieves to be found in moments of beauty and lightness.  Though each person's definition of lightness is bound to be different, so there we go again.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Poetic Connection: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

It is rare to find an author who sees people the way that you do and in an age where it seems like so many modern authors are jaded and whose characters are disgruntled, bored, angry adults, reading Van Booy's work is a breath of fresh air.  His prose is like poetry and it is impossible for me to not get caught up in them.  My favorite book of last summer was Everything Beautiful Began After and then I immediately sought out his collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love.  While I was browsing at my local book store, surprisingly open on the 4th of July, I saw on the front table that he had a new book out and I couldn't help myself even though I have a large stack of books to read on my nightstand already.

As I meet his characters, they are still open to the possibility of beauty and hope, even if it has felt long vanished from their lives.  And this I believe is what a lot of today's modern characters--and people, of course--are in desperate need of:  tiny moments that can begin to rewire the joy that has seeped out of living.

The Illusion of Separateness opens with a quote from monk Thich Nhat Hanh: We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.  The concept that Van Booy carries throughout his story is that the feeling of separateness is an illusion.  I wonder about the original context of the quote and what the "here" is meant to convey.  It could be on earth.  It could mean in this moment.  Or it could mean in an intentional place--literal or psychological--a readiness to face where life has taken us.  And perhaps it is in the journey of awakening we realize it is often those tiny moments of beauty and longing that connect us to those around us, whether we realize it or not.  In the book, that is part of the beautiful mystery.  The reader, by the end, is able to see the connections between the vignettes of characters presented to us from 1939 to 2010, from England to the East coast of the United States, but not all of the characters see the connections that draw them together--but--they each are able to find a bit of peace as they begin to see themselves in the larger context of humanity:

We all have different lives, Martin believes--but in the end probably feel the same things, and regret the fear we thought might somehow sustain us (16-17).

In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment--we are all defined by something we can't change (82).

Everyone was searching, he thought--trying to unravel the knot of their lives (152).

I'm not sure when life becomes that knot--but once we realize that nearly everyone feels it, all of a sudden just that knowledge lifts some of the separateness.  Not just empathy but community is born out of the shared brokenness--but through it has the ability to make life beautiful and poetic.
And of course, it brings the reader back to what I probably write about too much on here: why we need to read literature to understand humanity--and let our understanding of characters help us to look for the lives behind the faces we pass each day.

One of my favorite parts of the book (beyond the achingly beautiful character sketches) was that the characters took care of each other--often as strangers.  Be it with a bag of tomatoes or shelter in a war field.  Just like all of my favorite books do, this one makes me want to look for more poetry and hope in the cracks and corners of my world.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Monster Calls: a book about healing from grief, the power of story & some ruminations on the teaching of reading

My cousin recommended a middle grades book, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which is stunningly illustrated by Jim Kay.  I hadn't yet heard of it, but apparently it is causing quite a stir, having already won the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.  It is beautifully written, smart, and the pictures are breathtaking--but it is not for the faint of heart; I cried for over an hour when I finished it, which I do not admit lightly.  There is such beautiful, difficult truth in this book, though, that I find it impossible not to recommend.

The main character Conor has been having a terrible nightmare, which he cannot talk about and does not reveal until the end of the story, that began when his mother started getting treatments for cancer.  In the mean time, a monster begins showing up at 12:07 every night, claiming that he only comes walking in matters of life and death. Conor has no fear of this monster because in comparison to his true nightmare, he isn't scary at all.  The monster tells him he is going to tell him three stories, which are "the wildest things of all...Stories chase and bite and hunt," (37) and then, he says, Conor will tell the monster a story--his story, his truth, what happens at the end of his nightmare, that he cannot tell anyone.

What is brilliant about the book is the way the monster interacts with Conor and the way that the stories he tells symbolize the complexity of what it means to be human--Ness has crafted a story that gets at the heart of pain and healing in a way that is significant and weighty and truthful for both 12 year olds and adults.  Through the narrative voice of the monster and his stories, he approaches life's biggest fear--loss--in a heart wrenching, beautiful, and most important, truthful, way.

After the first story, they have this exchange:  "So the good prince was a murderer and the evil queen wasn't a witch after all.  Is that supposed to be the lesson of all this? That I should be nice to her?" He heard a strange rumbling, different from before, and it took him a minute to realize the monster was laughing.  "You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons?" the monster said.  "You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?" (63).

This reminded me of some of the work I recently did at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project's summer institute for the teaching of reading.  One of the best ongoing conversations at multiple sessions was about how students often don't do the reading work that will move and change and transform them as people--they look at a complex text and often want to reduce it to the first lesson they can come up with--but this is empty work when in a rich text.  Life--and the best kinds of stories--are far more complex than to reduce to a single lesson.  And it is a sad day when amazing books get reduced to looking for a lesson (which seems to be what standardized testing is trying to do to reading--reducing it to a task, rather than an opportunity to understand what it means to be human, what it means to belong, to escape from reality for a moment, I could go on).

Conor goes on to say: "I don't understand.  Who's the good guy here?" The moster replies: "There is not always a good guy.  Nor is there always a bad one.  Most people are somewhere in between." Conor shook his head.  "That's a terrible story.  And a cheat," (64).  This is where so many middle grade students find themselves--and because they have been trained to look for the "lesson" on a standardized test, or because for whatever reason they want to look for the easiest way out of a story rather than linger in what it is really offering.  The rest of the story follows Conor navigate and make meaning through the darkness in a way that stunned me as a person.

Like the monster says, stories are wild creatures.  They help us see.  They help us heal. And I love that it is my job to get books in the hands of kids and to teach them how to make their thinking messy, because that is how life goes.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Competitive friendships.

My Brilliant Friend is a novel, the first in a not-yet-finished trilogy, by the elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante that details the earliest years of a friendship between the unafraid, fiery Lila and the clever, though uncertain Elena in a poor Naples neighborhood in the late 1950s.  It is a novel of the time and place, for sure--as the reader, we watch the violence and passion of the neighborhood erupt in the name of pride and longing: "I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence, but I don't recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad," (37). We see children fighting to free themselves from their parents yet without the resources, or heart, to do it, and so they couple off and begin again in the town they rarely leave.   But for me as a reader, this was a novel about female friendship--and at first you might be tempted to think it sentimental and nostalgic, but really it's nothing of the sort.

The friendship between Lila and Elena is brutal.  Elena's standing in her school is usurped by Lila and the other kids can't stand her, but Elena is drawn to her.  As children, Lila seems to test to see just how far Elena will follow and remain her friend, and I read in disbelief Elena continued to be mystified and devoted to Lila, no matter how cruel she could be. In their neighborhood "the women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other's hair, they hurt each other.  To cause pain was a disease," (37).  Lila manifested this as a young girl and used it with Elena and Elena did not want to back down and appear weak, so their friendship went on, more a repetition of challenges than an actual friendship--throughout their entire friendship. 

Their friendship became even more complex when Elena's family allowed her to continue her studies and Lila's family did not.  Near the end of the book, their friendship diverges.  If not for the prologue which is written from Elena's perspective in her sixties and conveys that they are still friends (and sets up the trilogy), I would think that the friendship would dissolve, as often they do.  The more I thought about it I began to see how Lila pushed Elena and could be credited to the drive that enraptured her, but I was simultaneously repulsed by her manipulative behavior.  There's a moment near the end of the novel where Lila calls Elena "her brilliant friend," which is the way Elena had always seen Lila.  I'm left wondering about the truth or the manipulation behind the proclamation, or perhaps both.

The most thought provoking reflection Elena has about their friendship is this: "The better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become.  It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the joy or sorrow of the other," (257).

This kind of unspoken competition simultaneously makes me sick and yet feels very human and familiar if I am to look back on some of my own friendships.  There are a few that feel as though they had a similar competitive edge to them--which brought dissension and drama into the larger group.  It brought my thinking back to The Interestings and what envy can do to one's insides and in turn relationships.  It makes me wonder about why people feel the need to compare and judge themselves against others--not to sound simplistic or preachy, but it seems healthier to share in one another's joys and sorrows--to bear them together, knowing that no one has it easy or has it all.  Maybe it bothers me so much because I teach 13 year olds for a living and hate watching these power plays amongst them.  Perhaps this is just something we  learn--or, choose to learn--when we are older.  It is definitely easier to be bitter, but there is no emotional health in it.  And yet, the competition seemed to drive Elena to her highest achievements, and so I am left with unfinished thoughts wondering yet again about the complexity of the human condition.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and the curse of envy.

I probably should have read this book with people.  I think I may have had more grace with the characters if I had.  Though, I still read it quickly and stayed up too late reading a few nights in a row to finish it.  Perhaps it was these characters seemed too realistic and I'm tired of this reality.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is about a group of friends who meet at a summer camp for the arts and follows them through adulthood.  Five friends who live in Manhattan invite Julie, the main protagonist who lives in a Long Island suburb and whose father just died, into their fold and christen her as Jules.  She can't believe her luck as she becomes part of, what seems to her, as the most interesting groups of people she could have possibly crossed paths with: a budding cartoon artist, a son of a famous folksinger, a dancer, an actress.  As they grow up, they have varying degrees of success--the cartoon artist becomes incredibly wealthy creating a Simpsons-esque show, one is involved in directing, one abandons his talent to attend MIT and study robotics.  Jules makes an unsuccessful run at acting and ultimately becomes a therapist and struggles to make ends meet with her husband.  A lot of the book is dedicated to Jules envy of her wealthy friends and Wolitzer explores within all of the characters what it takes to be happy.

Though I moved through this book quickly, I lacked patience with the characters.  It seemed to be that everyone was miserable.  And that was depressing.  Then as I started thinking about it, so much of the fiction I read is about adults who are miserable.  That was even more depressing.  I tried to unravel where this was coming from in our culture: can we blame it on advertising creating a constant want for more? Or perhaps our susceptibility to advertising? Or the way that our attention spans have shortened thanks to social media? The instagram-ification of curating one's life? No.  I think it comes down to a bit of mental discipline.

I initially sat down to write this post on the 4th of July and didn't get very far.  While I was trying to write at my annoyance of the characters not being satisfied with what they had, or seeking out satisfaction in all the wrong things, I couldn't do it.  Because I was moping about the fact that I didn't have beach access or a lake house or outdoor space or a hometown parade.  I could not shake the hunger of want (the post I ended up writing that day touched on it a little bit).  In hindsight now, I am humbled at my own ridiculousness--let's look at this pattern of the rest of my day:

 My fiancee (the best person I know) made me waffles (my favorite brunch food) and forced me out of the apartment to go on a walk to the park (my favorite place in Brooklyn).  We got coffee (mental relaxation) and browsed Park Slope Community Bookstore (a bookstore open on the 4th of July felt miraculous).  We went to have burgers with dear friends and later sat with another dear friend while she had to get an emergency medical test done (both the essence of community). See what I'm saying? I have a lot to be thankful for and the things with the most true value are the ones that make life the most full, if I stop and think about it--and do that more than I dream of someone else's lake house.  And once I realized that I had the same kind of envy as Jules, I was able to have more grace with her as a character--I can't judge because I'm no better.

Interestingly enough,  one of my favorite quotes is on the sidebar of this blog: Teddy Roosevelt said that "comparison is the thief of joy." They told me in graduate school that learning is recursive--sometimes I have to stop and just keep remembering for the umpteenth time where true life resides.  It, of course, is easier to complain and compare and want--but, the quality of life outcome just does not compare with training my brain to be thankful in the moment.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Safety & Conjuring a Fairy Ring

{Harper Collins}
When I was little my imagination ran wild--I have memories of playing pretend for hours: sometimes it was in the school I created in my family's unfinished basement, sometimes it was playing Boxcar Children in the woods across the street, sometimes it was creating a sky-high circus in the tree in my best friend's front yard.  In the daylight, the heroes and protagonists of these imaginary stories always won as if the sunlight could trump anything.  Of course, then, this imagination stretched past my bedtime, when my parents were gone and I was alone in my room, with only my books, blanket, and stuffed animals for protection from the bad guys who lurked in the periphery of my daytime musings.

For these, I made rules I could follow in order to remain safe.  I have no idea if this came out of my tendency to be a rule follower, albeit an adventurous one, as a child or if every child created boundaries of some kind.  My rule, though, that I reminded myself of every night was that the bad guys could only get me if my covers were on exactly half of me.  Exactly.  I knew about symmetry by then.  I knew there was very little chance my covers would ever line up vertically; I made my bed horizontally every morning and clutched my blankets way past my stomach when I curled up at night.  So whether it was pirates or ghosts that were drifting in and out of my pre-slumber worrying, I reminded myself that they couldn't get me and fell asleep confidently.  I remember relying on this more when we had babysitters or when my dad was working nights.

I hadn't thought of this in a while until I was reading Neil Gaiman's newest book The Ocean at the End  last week.  (As a sidenote, I devoured it.  I read it while walking on the sidewalk.  I can't wait to discuss it with my Southwest Ohio Ex Pat book club.  In other words: go buy and get lost in it!) The book is about a middle aged man who returns to his hometown and remembers when he was young and his family car was stolen and a man committed suicide inside of it down the street on a neighboring farm.  The nameless protagonist meets the wise-beyond-her-11-years Lettie who lives there and is pulled into a fantastical, terrifying adventure with her as a result.  There is a moment later in the story when Lettie has to go face one of the fantastical creatures and she leaves him at what she calls a fairy ring around a tree and tells him not to leave for anything: "You're safe in the ring...whatever you see, whatever you hear, don't leave it...nothing that wants to hurt you can cross it."

The most fascinating part about this for me as a reader was that the protagonist believed her and as a variety of creatures and beings who look and sound like his family come up to try to coerce him out of the ring, he refuses to do it.  With each one, he pronounces to them the truth he believes: that Lettie told him to stay, that he trusts her, and that he wasn't going anywhere.  And it works. The moment feels so childish, and like I said, reminded me of the logic I had as a small girl.  But maybe that is what it takes.

I started thinking about the different voices I hear in my mind sometimes, asking me to doubt myself and to doubt what I know to be true.  It's amazing how much traction those voices can gain and how easy it is to believe them--and how they can lead me dangerously astray from the person I want to be.  So.  Today I am going to try to create my own fairy ring, my adult version of horizontal sheets.  I want to cast around me the truths I have come to believe and in moments of doubt dispel them--and then stand amazed and thankful when they slink back into the darkness and I can live wholeheartedly again.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

An Unlikely Pairing: The Lost Generation & The 4th of July

Lately I've been on a Lost Generation reading spree.  It started with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with a student book club and giving them some introductory information about the era and then I happened to read The Paris Wife, which is a semi-fictional story narrated from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Afterwards, I was fascinated by not only their relationship, but the ex-pat community in Paris, so I went on to read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, which was a memoir of his time in Paris which he wrote not long before he died and published posthumously.  I was so entrenched in the era that I decided I wanted to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was on my summer reading list, right away.  Then of course I re-watched Midnight in Paris and noticed all the inconsistencies (though I still love it).

Just like Woody Allen's Gil Pender, it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the ex-pat community in Paris--the incredible art, literature, salons.  Though it is impossible for me to not say that what this reading spree brought up in my thought life the most was how glad I am to be a woman today.  The culture of multiple mistresses and people openly accepting it, coupled with double standards for women and hypocritical expectations for wives in light of it all was truly grotesque.  Zelda Fitzgerald's own artistic life was stunted by Scott having her publish under his name or forbidding her to pursue dance or publish her writing work at all, saying that he had claim to the ideas within it.

The concept that struck me the most while reading, though, was that of memory, which I've written about quite a bit over the years.  It's the great invention of the mind in Rodman Philbrick's Young Adult Freak the Mighty. In Evening, by Susan Minot, it colors the narrator's entire existence.  In Man Walks into A Room, Nicole Krauss's main character loses his memory of all things relational.  In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai talks about some parts of our narrative are lost and some are purposely forgotten.

I am trying to decide where it fits for Hemingway.  Early in The Paris Wife, he takes Hadley on a trip to where he recovered from being injured in World War 1.  In his mind, the field was still desecrated with loss of life and the town where he was taken care of was pristine and quaint--but neither was the case when he arrived:

"When Ernest found the slope where he'd been wounded, it was green and unscarred and completely lovely.  Nothing felt honest.  Thousands of men had died here jut a few years earlier, Ernest himself had bled here, shot full of shrapnel, and yet everything was clean and shiny, as if the land itself had forgotten everything," (103).

"For the whole visit, Ernest wrestled with memory.  Everything had changed and grown dingy in the four years since he'd been here," (102).  

I suppose it is one of those mysteries of being human--how we can long so deeply for times that are past, even if those times were accompanied by struggle.  Perhaps in our minds, they remind us that we made it through, or perhaps the struggle has been slightly erased so that we don't remember that part anymore.  Hemingway himself describes it in A Moveable Feast: "There are many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that's gone now. Memory is hunger," (57).  

Elk Lake, 2011.  I only wish I had a
picture of the American flag boxers
my best friend and I *sewed ourselves*
for 4th of July 1996. 
Today, for me, memory is hunger.  On some levels the memories I've been escaping to this morning seem insignificant--but it happens every 4th of July that I am in New York City--a city I love with all my heart.  All I want right now is to be watching my hometown's parade, wearing my running clothes from the annual 5K, thinking about swimming in somebody's pool and going up to the high school for fireworks later.  Or, sitting at a simple lake house, eating off the grill, and watching a homemade fireworks display planned by friends I've known since the mid nineties.  I keep finding myself wanting to justify my nostalgic longing for these simple memories or the audacity I have for writing them in connection to Hemingway--but I'm not going to, because it's what is true for me today (which is interesting, because the quotes I wanted to write about in this post have been sitting in my blog drafts for a month)

What I do think is worth considering, though, is when you begin to appreciate what is past.  Hemingway did not write of nostalgia until the end of his life.  A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, was published after he took his own life and carries a tone much different from his earlier work.  In a painful-to-read confession he states that he wishes he had died before falling in love with anyone else.  I'm not sure that I believe him, completely.  Hadley asks him in The Paris Wife, not long after the visit to the town where he was shot and recovered: "When does it mean something? When everyone finally gets smashed to bits?" (145).  I think that is a fair read of Hemingway--and a terrifying way to live, but it pulls together my thoughts.  When he was with Hadley, he could only think of what might be next. The present didn't take on any value until it was long gone.

This year I started talking with my students about the idea of being present where you are, whether it is in a class discussion, a book club, or with their friends.  I suppose that is what I wish the men of the Lost Generation understood (hoping that it wasn't that restlessness that produced their drive and in turn art), and on a much smaller level, what I need to remember as I go over to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to celebrate Independence Day with dear friends later.  It is in view of the Statue of  Liberty, after all.

an aside, after my initial posting: I want to think later today about the implications of these American writers who chose to do so much of their writing elsewhere.  Looking at the title of this post, one might infer that my writing about it was a little more academic.  But alas.  It is a holiday, after all.