Category Archives: beauty

looking for wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

{sunday-six-thirty-light and signs-of-life outside my window}
{hudson street, west village}
{third street, park slope}

My ongoing struggle between the ideal and the real.

 I read Tana French’s first novel, In The Woods, this summer and was impressed with French’s ability to raise some serious questions about humanity in her mystery novels.  Someone in my building conveniently left her second novel up for grabs by our mailboxes, so I recently followed up with The Likeness.  

The story follows Detective Cassie Maddox as she goes undercover investigating a murder of a woman who looks nearly exactly like her, and was using the identity of a person she and her boss made up for a previous undercover operation, Lexie Madison. She lived with 4 of her best friends, all getting their PhDs in literature, in a house that one of them had inherited outside of Dublin.  The police squad decides to tell the roommates that Lexie survived the attack and will be going home.  Maddox’s job is to get to know the roommates in order to narrow down a suspect.

Life at the Whitethorn House, as it is called, seemed to be picturesque.  With no television, the friends spent their evenings reading, playing cards or working on the house itself.  The girls prepared breakfast each day while the boys cooked dinner every night.  Their rhythms felt old fashioned, and it was in that simplicity that they seemed to come alive that such an existence possible. Daniel, who inherited the house and gave the other 4 ownership in it described it as: “colors were so beautiful they hurt, life became almost unimaginably sweet and almost unimaginably frightening.  It’s so fragile, you know…everything was so beautiful and precarious, it took my breath away.”


Literature, like any other art form, is able to capture moments of ultimate beauty–and when I am standing in front of an impressionist painting or listening to any slow song with a pedal steel or rereading one of my favorite books I am carried away into the belief that the moment’s perfection can last.

But it doesn’t. And it can’t. And that hurts me.

The crux of the mystery in this story lies in the fact that the illusion was shattered, and it was this passage that I couldn’t stop thinking about: “The idea was flawed, of course… innately and fatally flawed.  It depended on two of the human race’s greatest myths: the possibility of permanence, and the simplicity of human nature.  Both of which are all well and good in literature, but the purest fantasy outside the covers of a book.  Our story should have stopped that night with the cold cocoa, the night we moved in: and they all lived happily ever after, the end.” 


But all good readers know that a story without tension is boring and happily-ever-after stories aren’t as satisfying as one would think because they don’t feel authentic.

I live between the ideal and real, and feel its tension deeply: it is impossible for me to walk without being firmly grounded in what I know is real, and yet my soul would wither if I couldn’t hope in the beautiful.  I suppose it is the reciprocal emotions that create the human experience.  To solely chase perfection in this world is ultimately a destructive pursuit.  Likewise, to live strapped to reality is utterly unromantic and unappealing.

So, with grace, the struggle goes on.

Childhood Favorites Post #1: Nostalgia in Bridge to Terabithia

All summer, I will be making my way through seven “childhood favorites” that I’m reading in preparation for my first unit in the fall. Luckily, this is the kind of work that I am more than happy to do. Bear with me, wait for adult books in between, or be inspired to pick up one of your favorites.

Bridge to Terabithia is a story about a boy with 4 sisters, a boy who feels misunderstood, a boy who wishes he were brave.  It is a story about friendship and imagination.  But most, for me, Bridge to Terabithia is a book of nostalgia.

I can’t put my finger on the moment that I couldn’t pretend anymore, but I do remember bring sixteen, baby sitting, and realizing that the magic of imagination and pretend had slipped away years before and I hadn’t even realized it.  It is a visceral realization of growing up.

As I read about Jess and Leslie creating their imaginary kingdom of Terabithia in the woods near their houses, I could think only about the worlds I created for myself in the woods across the street from my house, the places I made in our unfinished basement…and being able to physically will myself to believe it all for hours on end.  While I was reading, Jess and Leslie became kindred spirits.

They were moved by beauty, the feeling of fullness and wanting it to last forever: “They took turns swinging across the gully on the rope.  It was a glorious autumn day, and if you looked up as you swung, it gave you the feeling of floating. Jess leaned back and drank in the rich, clear color of the sky.  He was drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud back and forth across the blue.”

When I was younger, summer nights were the greatest.  All of the kids in my neighborhood would be running through our adjoining backyards, soaking up every last shred of daylight and catching lightning bugs into the twilight. Even though I knew there would always be another summer evening with cool grass beneath my feet and the smell of trees and creek and corn in the air, my heart broke when night finally came and we all had to go inside.  I spent many evenings after bed time with my face pressed against the screen, trying to breathe in the evening air for as long as possible.

They felt the need to create sacred spaces: “This is not an an ordinary place,” she whispered.  “Even the rulers of Terabithia come into it only at times of greatest sorrow or greatest joy.  We must strive to keep it sacred. It would not do to disturb the Spirits.”

Once in college, a few friends of mine and I found ourselves in an enormous grove of pine trees that were planted a hundred years ago in straight lines spanning for hundreds of yards.  Without even thinking, my friend Erin and I started sprinting down the aisle of trees…running and jumping seemed the only proper response to such a scene: we were so utterly joyful that merely starring at it all wasn’t enough.  My friend Matt took a picture of this pre-digital photography and caught us both in midair. It was in a frame for years and below it I pasted the quote: “Perhaps they could run over the hill and across the fields to the stream and swing themselves into Terabithia.”

This happened again when I went to England with two kindred and we saw true English countryside for the first time.  We just couldn’t believe that it existed in real life the same way we had pictured it in our minds in all our favorite books. I do have physical proof of our giddiness:

When the tragedy is revealed at the end and Jess’ horrid sister tells him blatantly, it literally plunged my heart like a dagger, even though I knew all along what was coming.  Jess and Leslie are just too kindred for it to not hurt like crazy.  It is the moment that the magic makes the first break: where it’s impossible to be completely immersed in imagination. But. It doesn’t mean that it no longer exists.

Bits of the magic come back to me sometimes and remind me that the world is enchanted.  Most of the time it’s when the eastern woodlands smell like Ohio.  Some of the time it’s when the sun is setting and the light is perfectly orange and the shadows purple.  Sometimes I feel again athe essence of my heart aching because of all that is beautiful and good. And real.

Soundtrack for this book for me:
Pacific Street/Hem
Why Should I Cry for You/Sting
All At Sea/Jamie Cullum
Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own/U2
Yellow/Coldplay

3 Books. 1 Train of Thought.

www.akindoflibrary.blogspot.com

I am reading All the Broken Pieces, set in the United States just after the Vietnam War, to my seventh graders.  For context, I’ve been teaching lessons on the Vietnam War and its causes, the atmosphere in the United States afterwards and asking students to think about war in general. The main character is a Vietnamese boy, Matt Ping, who has been adopted by an American family. The book is in verse and one of the metaphors that Matt uses is that freedom is the color of his toddler brother’s red shoes on the swing.  When I asked my students what they thought that meant, I was blown away by their understanding that demonstrated a (newfound) awareness of the world outside the safety of childhood. In response to the metaphor, a student said that freedom is the ability to live without the burden and weight of the knowledge of things like war.

This came after I realized that my reading life has been inundated lately with the question of how we are meant to live in light of what we know to be true and good. This question is never far from my mind, but I’ve found easy to hide from.

I am finally reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, which is the story of Chris McCandless: his disdain for modern American culture and his journey across the country and eventually to his death in the Alaskan wilderness, a place where he sought out true existence off of land, inspired by the trancendentalists and Tolstoy and Jack London, completely away from all that society has become and all the ways it burdened him.

Krakauer writes of Chris’ love of London: “He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness.”  I guess this is the struggle that exists between idealism and realism, which is incredibly frustrating.  The question always becomes how are we supposed to live in a world that is so broken and seems to worship all the things that don’t have true value?

Krakauer includes the following quote before a chapter describing Chris’ reasons for deserting the lifestyle he was raised in: “To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and rxiles. Here the leaders of the great religious have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.” (Paul Shepard) McCandless was seeking the same kind of exile.  A fiction character who embarked on a completely different kind of exile is John Andrew Corrigan of Let the Great World Spin: 



Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where he was supposed to go. He stayed where he was needed. He took little or nothing along. He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery…What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth–the filth, the poverty–was that life could be capable of small beauties.”  Corrigan was a secret man of faith–who left Ireland to live in the Bronx, bought coffee for the prostitutes he befriended and owned next to nothing. Like McCandless, he gave away almost everything he acquired. But unlike McCandless, he sought out beauty in the people the world forgets rather than in solitude and nature.

So. What all this translates into in my mind is how are we choosing to live?  It is far too easy to slip into patterns that try mimic glossy advertisements and mistake things for reasons for being.  When I read of people like McCandless and Corrigan (though fictional) I always wonder how they live out of such unselfish ideals.  Though, my favorite part of the book is how Corrigan poetically and painfullly grapples with his and humanity’s fallenness…and I suppose that it will always be just that: each day making choices for the things that really matter.  Stepping out of the conditioned false securities that we cling to.  Having the courage to be a bit unconventional. 

All that said, I highly recommend all of these books.  

The missing piece.

“From a hundred paces, Salome could see the dirt under these girls’ fingernails, but not their wings,” (12).  This. breaks. my. heart.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver gave me so much to think about that I’ve had a really hard time choosing how exactly to respond.  Its creative structure of journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings and archivist’s notes tells the life story of Harrison Shepherd, half Mexican, half American, who begins the story as a a lonely yet adventurous boy on an island in Mexico.  His path crosses with the lives of some of history’s most interesting character’s: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky.  He goes on to move to North Carolina and lead a very quiet life as a writer.  There aren’t enough pages to go into all that the story touches on: The 1932 Bonus March in Washington, DC, the culture of the Red Scare, the relationship between art and politics…so for now I will zoom in on what I thought was one of the most relevant themes in the book, the title itself.

The word lacuna has multiple meanings, but I want to focus on one: it means “the missing piece” and in the story refers to the fact that “…you can’t really know the person standing before you, because always there is some missing piece…That is the heart of the story,” (325).

This is the heart wrenching complexity of human relations: we are quick to judge without knowing someone’s story and yet, once we do hear it, there is typically some kind of inner backlash:

I wish I would have known that.
That completely changes the way I thought of that person.
Oh, it all makes sense.
Now I’m the ass.

I like to settle myself into the optimist’s camp (that I don’t think is mutually exclusive with naivete), believing that if we looked at people differently, the world would change.  It pains me that even as I type this it seems like a banal idea. But really, if we looked for, or even lived under the assumption that everyone has a complex story, layered with wrongs given and wrongs received, fragile hearts despite iron exterior, I think we’d all be a little less angry.  A little less annoyed. A little more forgiving. A little more apt to see the beautiful?

Kingsolver’s treatment of this concept in the book is much more deep and complex than I could ever begin to explore in a blog post, but it all underlines what I love about literature: that you get to know the inner lives and motivations of characters and have a bit of a window into humanity.  Kingsolver said in a recent interview:  “Literature will always be political: It cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.”

Sigh.