Category Archives: brene brown

Fates and Furies and being known.

9781594634475_custom-a1c60d0db7c4d3d9fce99ec338b463c8ea95ca03-s400-c85“Mathilde’s heart was a bitter one, vengeful and quick. [True.]  Mathilde’s heart was a kindly one. [True.]” (page 380)

0ne of the lessons I’ve been working on teaching my students is that readers look for and explore nuance. It’s easy for them (and the rest of us!) to make quick judgements of characters (and people!) with generalized language: she’s a good person, he’s a bad person, etc. I’m trying to get them to hold multiple ideas about a character in their mind at once, to consider multiple causes of behaviors, to consider other perspectives.

I got to put this concept to work while reading Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which was marketed as a book about marriage and tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde who met and married during the final weeks of college. Divided into two parts, Fates focuses on Lotto’s story and Furies on Mathilde’s; crossing over from one to the next reveals new details and backstories to what happened in the first half. After discussing with my book club, we thought that a better description would be it’s a story of a marriage, but it is more a story about the degree to which we allow ourselves to be known, and to which we pursue truly knowing those closest to us.

The women in my book club all came from the perspective that marriage (and best friendship) is a place where we wanted to be truly known and truly loved, though we concluded that it’s impossible to know a person completely. What made this book so interesting was that Lotto and Mathilde were looking for very different things in their marriage: Lotto needed a muse and someone to take care of him; Mathilde needed security. Neither of them seemed to want to be fully known, or somehow didn’t consider it as an option.

One of the more interesting lines in the book for me was “He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her,” (page 331). This line was narrated not by Lotto, but by an unnamed narrator who occasionally commented on the events in the story, which is significant because it shows that Lotto himself wasn’t cognizant of how much he didn’t know about her. Mathilde, however, was keenly aware.

The other fascinating part of the story is the thread Groff spins through that most other people were constantly looking at Lotto and Mathilde from the outside and thinking it was the epitome of the best kind of marriage. And perhaps for the intents and purposes of Lotto and Mathilde, it was, but there was another moment I thought really compelling that adds a layer to consider:

During a Christmas that was emotionally wrought for the characters, Groff spent a significant number of pages writing an account that a stranger passing by on the street saw through the window “a circle of singing people bathed in the clean white light from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him; it merged with him even as he came home to his own children…All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, because the very idea of what happiness should look like,” (page 75). Mathilde and Lotto didn’t truly know one another, their friends didn’t truly know them, and this scene extends the idea that we so easily misinterpret the world around us. It’s a lonely idea. (And it got metacognitive when we, as readers, realized the misinterpretations we made about Mathilde before we knew her story that came in the second half of the book.)

What I walked away from book club thinking the most about was how one of my friends called their relationship the opposite of what Brene Brown writes about in her books–that opening ourselves to vulnerability is what allows us to live wholeheartedly. A lot of our conversation circled around the compassion for the characters we felt as we learned more about them, and the frustration and sadness we had for them as we watched them keep an arm’s length–which may feel safer and more secure, but in the long run ends in loneliness.

So–is this book worth the hype? I think so. The more I think about it the more I want to discuss it and what it says about relationships and about gender. I didn’t get into it here and don’t want to spoil some plot lines, but learned that both Lotto and Mathilde were crafted to combat some gender stereotyping in literature, which is always interesting food for thought.

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.

Story always seems to be the answer: the narrative structure and emotional health

I read mostly fiction.  I believe–and tell my students–that fiction can often be more true than fact in the ways that it can teach us about life.  What I’ve come to learn, though, is that it’s not necessarily fiction per se, but narrative.  Story.  We are doing a coming-of-age literature unit and my biggest hope is that my students, just beginning some of the uphill climbs of growing up, can find hope in the ways that the protagonists they are reading get through their struggles.  I want them to see that in studying the classic story mountain structure, that there are hills and valleys that are sometimes hard to make sense of or see their way out of, but that resolution comes.  Often, it is not what was originally sought after, but there is a knowledge and a wisdom that appears after making it through.

Everything seems to be aligning, though, because recently I’ve come across two nonfiction resources that have discussed this same phenomena: that understanding narrative can help people emotionally process through life better.

The first came from the New York Times a few months ago in an article called The Family Stories that Bind Us by Bruce Feiler.  In summary, he discusses the idea that the best thing that a parent can do for a child is to develop a strong family narrative.  He says when child feels that he or she is a part of something greater, the child will be more resilient in challenges, feel safer, and even happier.  The most interesting part, though, was that when they studied children who knew their family narrative, there was a delineation among them that produced a stronger child, still.  The three major narratives were “We worked hard to get all that we have, and we made it” “we had it all and lost it, and we made it” and the third created the most emotionally healthy children: “we’ve had some ups and some downs, and we made it.”

The second comes from Brene Brown, a writer and researcher whose work has been really influential for me since I first saw her Ted Talks in the fall and recently began reading The Gifts of Imperfection with a good friend of mine (one of my few non fiction books this year).  Obviously, she speaks about our state as imperfect humans, and the fact that despite we know that about ourselves, we often live in ways that demonstrate the opposite.  One of the core tenets of her research has been “when we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness–the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.” Own our story.  This is a life changing sentence, that brings me back to the idea that the greater understanding we have of the “mountain of action” structure of life–knowing their will be new starts, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution–the healthier we become.

On that note, I’m looking forward to making my summer reading list, which I’ll be posting about soon.

Rhythms and Anchors: life truth from young adult literature

I’ve been reading up a storm lately, but you couldn’t tell by looking here.   I recently finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rivka Brunt and reread Crank by Ellen Hopkins with my students.  I  also reread the young adult Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes for my graduate class and loved it just as much the second time around.  It is set in a small Ohio town in 1973 and the Karl, the high school senior protagonist has been a part of a therapy group at school since elementary school.  They dubbed themselves the Madman Underground, since they know everything about each other’s lives, but generally stick to their own social circles outside of therapy.  Karl’s dad passed away and his cat-hoarding mother drinks her nights away and steals Karl’s money to pay for it.

This calendar year has felt like a whirlwind to me: planning a wedding, moving to a new (fixer upper) apartment, and going back to graduate school on top of grading essays and state tests has left me feeling scattered and in survival mode–I’ve spent quite a bit of my walking time getting from one place to the next dreaming about getting upstate with some English breakfast tea, hiking boots and a pile of books.  In the midst of the crazy, I came across this passage from Madman from a scene when Karl feels exhausted and overwhelmed and looks over to a list of household projects and chores that his dad made for him before he died:

Dad had left me a list, month by month and week by week, when to do all the stuff he’d shown me how to do.  I couldn’t always keep up with it, between Mom and the cats. I knew it would all fall to shit the minute I left for the army.  Still, mostly I kept it up.  Nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d just turn on my desk lamp, point it at the wall, and read that list to myself til I knew where I was in the world again (110).

I actually teared up thinking about Karl re-grounding himself in rhythms that were passed down to him by his father and the way that rereading them enabled him to remember his true identity.  This is the piece that I have often gone without this year–I have kept going and going and the easiest things to let go of were the rhythms and anchors that remind me of who I am–be it through writing, running in the park, cooking a meal.  We are also in the midst of our final unit: studying Coming-of-Age literature and thinking about what it means to grow up, and this wisdom from Karl is some of the best advice I could ever give a teenager, and also helps put their lives and craziness into perspective.
There was a crazy day last week when I didn’t have time to cook but couldn’t bear to order in food that wouldn’t feel good to my body.  So I decided to make a meal that would take the longest to make, of course: risotto with spring vegetables.  I was filled with anxiety and my mind was looming with deadlines, but decided that it was worth it to walk to a grocery store much further than the two closest to me to get higher quality vegetables.  Within a block of walking I was so taken by the late spring evening light and my neighborhood’s energy that I was able to completely reset my mindset.  It was a mental miracle.  

So.  I realized that I needed to build in some time for anchoring myself just like Karl did.  This week I started reading Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection with a friend of mine (after seeing her game changing Ted Talks last fall and being blown away).  One of the first things she talks about is recognizing the moments when you feel yourself becoming depleted and to do something about it in the moment–remembering your anchors and truths.  This past week I’ve been able to climb out of the craziness bit by bit and breathe.

It also helps that summer is so close.