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.