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.