Complex Grief as Metaphor: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

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You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie is creative writing at its best. The memoir is a combination of prose and poetry, with intentional repetition of stories and various symbols that give the reader an authentic, moving take on grief. He writes “this book is a series of circles, sacred and profane,” (288). These circles, the repetition and symbols, are what I wish I could discuss with a book club or with students in a reading or writing course. Why does grief take us around and around? How do we work through the sacred and profane and hold both in our hands at the same time?

Alexie demonstrates how to address difficult truths through exploring his complicated relationship with his mother.

It’s not only a book about grief, though. Alexie explores identity and racism–and his grief for his mother almost works as a metaphor for a reader wanting to engage with how racism is at work in our country and how he or she might face it and fight it. One of the best piece of advice out there right now, a starting place, for white people to think about racism is to listen. Alexie’s accounts and insights across the book took my breath away. This passage in particular:

I have visited museums of genocide in other countries. Though I realize “visited” is the wrong verb. “Endured” is too self serving. Perhaps the best sentence is “I have experienced museums of genocide in other countries.” And what do I remember? I remember that I kept having to close my eyes against the pain. I often had to look away from the pain. I often had to sit on benches and stare at the blank floors. And what do I make of the genocide museum in our own country? What do I make of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum? It is a vital place. It is a grievous reminder. A warning. It is as necessary as any museum ever built. But it also proves to me how the United States closes its eyes against the pain it has caused. The United States often looks away from the pain it has caused. The United States often sits on benches and stares at the blank floors (296).

For readers, for me anyway, this book felt like a call to grieve, to sit and wrestle with, the racism of the past and think of how it impacts the present. What systemic processes created the realities Native Americans faced and continue to face? What policies? What small decisions on part of politicians and voters? What other areas of history do I need to reflect on with the same lens?

It’s the sitting and wrestling that our culture seems to be without these days: one is right or wrong, good or bad, tweet about it and move on. Alexie digs and circles back and digs and circles back, and the technical aspects of his writing style in this book couldn’t more beautifully capture that process. After finishing it, it feels like an invitation, knowing that it could be a process that doesn’t have a clear ending, or any ending at all. And that’s ok.

(Side note: this intersects with my reading of Prairie Fires, which is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also a record of government and Native Americans, government and the environment, the ways history books have narrated our understandings from limited perspectives. I love when books layer one another.)

Top Ten Books of 2017

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2017, it seems, felt like a struggle for many. I tried to fill my reading life with stories that would help me get to know more people and more nuanced views of social issues, and in this way my life got a lot bigger. Sharing this with my students was a highlight–their passion for social justice was a highlight of my year.

I didn’t write that often because my body felt pretty tired–it was a year that started with IVF drugs and ended, so very gratefully, with a baby girl after years of waiting for her–this is how my life got a bit smaller, in the best of ways.

So we are holed up and hibernating in this cold, reading some picture books (City Cat and We Are Here are my current favorites–thanks Alison and Grace) and ebooks (very unlike me…more on that later) and drinking lots of coffee. And, of course, watching television favorites: the end of Major Crimes (deeply upsetting), making my way through Gilmore Girls (a delight), and American Vandal (hilarious satire on the real crime documentary genre). I have my Anne of Green Gables DVDs ready to go to start off 2018 well.

If you are looking to grow your nightstand stack in the new year, here are my favorites (and here are lists from 2006-2016). Please share your best books of the year–I’m always looking for good recommendations!

March by John Lewis: I’ve recommended this countless times to students and friends, in person and on this blog. This graphic novel trilogy chronicles Congressman John Lewis’s experiences during the Civil Rights movement. I would honestly call this required reading not just for those interested in history, but anyone who wants to understand today as well.

Homegoing by Yaa Guasi: This book is probably the favorite of my book club this year. It starts with two chapters that tell the story of two half sisters in Ghana in the 18th century who don’t know each other. Each chapter following covers someone in the next generation, alternating between the family lines of each sister, until modern day.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger: Set in the early sixties, this is the story about family, coming of age, and loss–it felt like a combination of Stand by Me and To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: Having won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, I imagine most people have heard of or read this book already. This creative book takes the reader on the protagonist Cora’s journey to escape slavery.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: Born to a black woman and a white man, which was illegal in South Africa, Trevor Noah’s story of growing up was eye opening, poignant, and filled with enough humor to break up the heaviness that encompassed much of his life.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This is another book that should be required reading not just for its young adult audience, but for everyone. The protagonist, a young black woman, witnesses her best friend get killed by a police officer. This story is timely, nuanced, and urgent.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: I mentioned this is my summer reading conclusion–I can’t believe I missed this book when it came out. Set mostly in Ethiopia, two brothers grow up in an adopted family of medical professionals. Not only is this a powerful story that completely sucked me in, it covers so many complexities about what it means to be human as well as in the medical world.

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce: This book feels like an “easy read” in that it feels like the characters are your own family and when it ends, you wish that it could keep going. It is about an Italian family on Staten Island and how the different members deal with the loss of one of the sons.

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: Alice McDermott has a way of capturing the inner conflicts of her characters and the small moments in their lives in a way that feels deeply authentic and artistic. This story felt like the essence of creative writing to me. The main character is a young new mother in an Irish Catholic Brooklyn neighborhood whose husband

The Leavers by Lisa Ko: This is the first ebook I’ve read since I travelled internationally five years ago. The first week home with our new baby, I didn’t read at all and basically had an identity crisis. I realized that there were other options on my phone to occupy my time while feeding and the kindle app saved my life. This is a story about a Chinese American boy in Manhattan whose mother disappears when he is ten and he is then adopted by a white family upstate.

Shalene Flanagan Made Me Cry (or, why high school cross country was the best)

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Before the JV girls race, 1998

Last weekend I teared up reading this article in the New York Times about Shalene Flanagan’s NYC Marathon victory…and it brought me back to high school (and the glorious mid-to-late nineties–please cue Under the Table and Dreaming, Throwing Copper, When I Woke, Jagged Little Pill).

The background information sounded like a metaphor for so many female relationships:

Here’s how it worked until Flanagan burst onto the scene. After college, promising female distance athletes would generally embark on aggressive training until they broke down. Few of them developed the staying power required to dominate the global stage. And they didn’t have much of a community to support them; domestic women’s distance running was fractious and atrophied.

The author goes on to share Flanagan’s countercultural approach:

Flanagan’s leadership style doesn’t fit the “girl boss” leadership archetypes that are flourishing in pop culture, the Ivanka Trump feminism, with its shallow claims of support for women, that yields no results. (Ms. Trump’s kind of feminism may attract cheers at races, but it does not win them.) Flanagan does not just talk about elevating women; she elevates them. And they win.

Where I live in New York City, most people I talk to do not have fond memories of high school. I’m an 8th grade teacher, so it is easy for me to understand why: the exclusive tribes, the never ending social striving, trying to figure out life while also trying to figure out Trigonometry. It’s a lot. But. I loved it–and my time spent on the cross country team is a major reason why: I was a part of a community where people lifted each other up–and it wasn’t a small group of girls–my freshman class essentially tripled the size of both the boys and girls Cross Country team, with about 80 runners total.

Y’all, I was so slow. SO SLOW. And yet, I remember countless races, trying to power through the last mile and seeing varsity runners from the boys’ and girls’ teams on the sidelines cheering me and the other slowest runners in the race on with enthusiasm. I remember being encouraged to set goals for myself and train to beat them, even though I would never be a varsity runner. When I was a freshman in 1995, the senior girls modeled what it meant to be a team–they were making every runner photocopied inspirational posters to get ready for race day. They made us feel like we belonged and included us 15 year olds on their inside jokes.Their example paved the way for how we would want to lead not just as runners (because Lord knows I’ve never led a race), but as teenage girls who lifted one another up.

Senior girls, 1998

I was a part of a community that elevated me as an athlete (I’ve never really stopped running…slowly), but moreover as a human, and this is one of the reasons why I can look back and say I loved high school and one of the reasons why I begged my brother to get me a Yeti mug with our high school logo on it that he got all of his groomsmen at his wedding this summer (all friends from high school, interestingly).

Community and lifting one another up seem so novel now, as a look at a social media landscape that can be so brutal. (Though I am hopeful as I follow my high school’s “student section” on twitter (@TheHerdCHS) where its student leaders try to get everyone to to every game: not just boys football and basketball, but every event. Go elks, #EPND, etc.)

So looking forward, I’m wondering how can women elevate women? And in light of all the gross news lately, how can men? The boys Cross Country coach was also my teacher for 3 years in middle school. I walked into his class at the end of 8th grade and declared that I finally ran a mile without stopping and he was just as excited as I was–meanwhile his team was running over ten miles at practice easily.

Running cross country gave me so many metaphors to guide my life (come on, I’m an English teacher, I had to go there) and while I was reading the article, so many new ones came to mind:

“We had run thousands of miles together; we had worked so hard for this. She had been there every step of the way, struggling with me,” Cragg told me a few months after the race.

Instead of being threatened by her teammates’ growing accomplishments, Flanagan embraced them, and brought in more women, elevating them to her level until they become the most formidable group of distance athletes in the nation. National championships, world championships, Olympics: They became some of the best runners in the world.

Together we accomplish more.

“I thoroughly enjoy working with other women,” Flanagan told me. “I think it makes me a better athlete and person. It allows me to have more passion toward my training and racing. When we achieve great things on our own, it doesn’t feel nearly as special.”

As a teacher, and for my fellow educators and anyone who works with young people: how do we help foster this lifting up of one another? How can we help make adolescence a time where there are people to look up to and cheer one another on, even when it feels uphill?

As women, and as humans, how can we look for the best and elevate one another, rather than judging?


Summer Reading Recap…just in time for the first day of fall!

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Back in June, I wrote about the books I hoped to read over the summer, and for the first time ever (I think), I read every one. Usually a few get forgotten or replaced. A lot of my summer reading could be described as “light”–meaning that in the first ten days of summer I think I read five books. Many were page-turning mysteries, and without the pressure of an alarm clock in the morning, I often read well into the night, falling asleep with a book on my face.

I spent a lot of time in the Midwest, visiting family and friends in Ohio, and travelling around the perfection of northern Michigan with dear friends. My problem was finding adorable independent bookstores in every town I went to (Glen Arbor, Traverse City, Petoskey, Harbor Springs) was my limited ability to pack the books into my carry-on to get them home! I think I walked away with 3 new books from northern Michigan. I was able to get out to eastern Long Island to soak up the beach with family for a few days–and being from a family of readers, covered some serious pages oceanside.

Since the fall has (almost) started, I’m ready to jump into a reading life that feels a bit more weighty–there are so many great books that have been published recently. But here are my summer highlights, if you are looking for your next book:

Mysteries: These were mostly escapist reads–none quite living up to my personal standard of Tana French, but enjoyable nonetheless.

The Girls by Emma Cline, My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh, You by Caroline Kepnes, Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, Still Life by Louise Penny, The Lake and the Lost Girl by Jacquelyn Vincenta, The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Memoir: I think I need to add more memoirs to my to-be-read pile, because I have been loving this genre.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui: This graphic novel was an impulse buy from The Strand one night that shares the story of the author’s family’s immigration from Vietnam to the United States. Reading stories like this is so vital to broadening our perspectives and finding common humanity. Definitely worth reading.

I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This by Nadja Spiegelman: I’ve read quite a bit of Spiegelman’s dad’s work (Maus is a graphic novel telling the story of his family during the Holocaust), but knew very little else about him. His daughter’s book was an engaging, thought provoking memoir about the relationship between mothers and daughters–I read it in two days.


Tender by Belinda McKeon, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, Bittersweet by Stephanie Danner, Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy, The Seventh Book of Wonders by Julia Baggott

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: I have no idea how I missed this book when it was published in 2010, but it shot to my top ten books of all time and has become the book I most recommend. Set mostly in Ethiopia, it is a story of two twin brothers who grow up in an adopted family of medical professionals. It is about family, about medicine (and access to medical practices), about love, about loss. If you read one book from this list, this should be it.

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce: This book tells the story of an Irish-Italian family from Staten Island from around the time the Verrazano Bridge went up until present day, that is partially centered around the loss of one of the sons, a firefighter, on 9/11. It’s told from the perspective of different members of the family, and just felt so honest and human. I wasn’t ready for it to end. 

Here I Am by Jonathan Safron Foer: More than a decade ago, I read Foer’s first two novels and loved them. He hasn’t written much fiction since (though reading Tree of Codes with a couple friends was amazing), so of course I was excited to read Here I Am, and better yet to read it with 3 friends. It could not be more different than his first two novels, which for me felt full of hope. Cynical is the word that kept coming to mind–which I guess isn’t that rare of a mindset shift from one’s early twenties to early forties? One I hope to avoid, but realistic? It was tough to get through at points, reading about the un-doing of the main character’s family as the oldest son is about the celebrate his bar mitvzah, but really interesting to discuss. He asks a lot of questions about what it means to be Jewish in the United States, after a mid-book plot curve that involves an international incident in Israel.

The Girls by Emma Cline or, Adolescence is the Worst?

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As an 8th grade teacher, I get a front row seat to what most people remember as their most awkward/hated/embarrassing stage of life. I do a lot of thinking about girls and self esteem (and gender expectations/identity in general for all adolescents).

When I think back to middle school, I remember feeling relieved to purchase the hunter green GAP sweatshirt that everyone else seemed to have, and feeling grateful to have a lunch table to sit at, and being a part of a big group of girls who all dressed as Dalmatians for Halloween. I wasn’t the prettiest or the most popular in the group, I still had the layers of insecurities, and there was plenty of drama, but having a space and a group to figure all this out in made a difference. (I’m most grateful that none of this played out on social media).

The book The Girls by Emma Cline is set in 1970s California, and loosely based on Manson family lore. The protagonist is an 8th grade girl who is lonely, insecure, and looking for more. She ends up spending most of her summer before high school at a ranch where some girls she met live, very similar to the Manson ranch. The historical perspective, the suspense of the story and wondering if she would get caught up in the violence of the group kept me turning pages, but it was actually Emma Cline’s writing about adolescent girlhood that kept me underlining parts of this book that I initially thought would be escapist entertainment:

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you–the boys had spent that time becoming themselves. (28)

How desperately Connie and I thought that if we performed these rituals–washed our faces with cold water, brushed our hair into a static frenzy with a boar-bristly brush before bed–some proof would solve itself and a new life would spread out before us. (42)

That was part of being a girl–you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if . you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you. (56)

That was our mistake, I think. One of many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that somebody could understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intentions in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything. (56)

Connie studied me with cold wonder, like I’d betrayed her, and maybe I had. I’d done what we were not supposed to do. Illuminated a slice of private weakness, exposed the twitchy rabbit heart. (61)

I was stunned as I read these, and despite my relatively happy teenage years, by how much I could relate. And, I was shocked by how far into my twenties I still carried some of them–that was the shocking part. What I couldn’t stop thinking about (and talking about to anyone who would listen) was the notion that while girls spent time readying themselves for boys, boys spent that time just becoming themselves. And of course, some of this is part of growing up and learning–thank God for that–but there is a part of me that is jealous for that time; there’s a part of me who is still trying to figure out why I spent time trying to figure out what girls did that annoyed guys so I would never become “that” girl.

And so. Reflecting on my own journey of adolescence has made me really think about the girls I interact with each day, about my nieces, about my friends’ daughters. How are we, as adults, men and women alike, creating a world where girls get to just become themselves without fear of illuminating a slice of private weakness?

(As a side note, after processing this book, I also just finished My Sunshine Away, another mystery and coming of age novel told from the perspective of a grown man about a crime that was committed in his neighborhood in his adolescence. The same questions could actually be asked in regard to him–so the issue isn’t a gender one, necessarily, but one about adolescence and its echoes beyond. I responded to The Girls in regards to my own experience as a young woman.)