Category Archives: brokenness

Your place in the family of things: picture books and poetry

artist Brian Rea for NYT

artist Brian Rea for NYT, February 26, 2015







This morning, I read last week’s the Modern Love column in the New York Times and it was one of the most beautiful essays I’ve read in a long time. It is about a mother with an aching teenage daughter, and how she starts putting poems in her shoes from authors (including Mary Oliver, my favorite) who have “been in pain before and struggled to find hope” and put it into words.

This season-semester has been one that feels long and difficult mostly because I signed up for too many graduate school classes at a time where my daily work feels its most challenging.  And because, winter. But I was reminded this week of the difference a good story can make when I read Fox, basically the most poignant picture book ever made, by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks to my 8th graders. They were anxiously, nervously, crazily awaiting the arrival of their high school admittance letters (which are shamefully delivered to school and not home), but we took a period to read this story aloud, talk about developing themes, and in turn talk about life, of course. It was incredible how silent and absorbed and responsive they were to this story about a dog with a missing eye and a bird with a burnt wing.

Last night a dear friend and I were discussing the paralyzing feeling of working with teenagers whose lives feel harder than anything we can imagine (she helps run a mentoring program), and knowing that there’s not a formula or behavior pattern we can teach them that can fix all that’s on their plate. We started thinking of what we can really offer, and I found myself basically reciting Fox to her as we talked over tacos. As my students and I discussed this week, it’s a story of friendship and loyalty, of betrayal and shame, of hope and the courage to face what lies ahead. And as we escaped into the story, our class discussions landed on some beautiful truths about processing hardship, facing mistakes, and building friendships that are rooted for storms. And my friend and I, avid readers with bleeding hearts, were reminded again of the power of story and words.

I’ll end with one of the poems referenced in the Modern Love essay, Wild Geese, one that I happened to listen to Mary Oliver read and discuss in a podcast last week. In what feels like a dreadfully long winter, today I am grateful for writers who remind us we are not alone.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are,

no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.



A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

51l1ADoTZzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by  Anthony Marra ended up becoming one of my favorite books of 2014. Set in war torn Chechnya, the settings alternate between Eldar, a small village, and a mostly abandoned hospital in nearby Volchansk.  The narrative structure reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See, which played with time and the order in which the story was presented to the reader.  In this story, there is a timeline at the beginning of each chapter that goes from 1994-2004, with the chapter’s focus highlighted.  Marra covers the interconnected story of about characters, focusing mainly on Havaa, a young girl whose mother had died and whose father was disappeared at the beginning of the story, the neighbor who takes her in, and Sonja, the only doctor at the hospital who returned to Chechnya from London to be with her sister, who has also disappeared.

In an interview at the end of the book Marra describes his style: “War breaks cities, buildings, and families, but also time and the way stories are constructed. To tell this story in a straightforward, linear fashion would fall short of capturing the absurd, recursive manner in which its characters assemble their chaotic narrative. All the characters in Constellation are trying to piece back together their fragmented lives, and I wanted to embody that in the novel’s structure. As each character attempts to rescue what has been lost, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole,” 394). Marra beautifully captures the struggle and desperation of each of the characters–enabling us to feel the chaos, confusion, and heartbreak alongside of them.

When describing her missing sister to border guards, camp officials, and aid workers: How could an instrument as blunted as language express one as strange and fleeting as Natasha? Metaphors failed her; Natasha could not be summarized, (271).  It was this sentence that helped me wrap my mind around what Marra was doing with the structure of the story–language cannot fully express a nation at war, let alone an individual.  The shifting in time, backward and forward through the memories of six or so individuals can provide only a glimpse of the confusion, the loss, the human weight of what happens when we begin to destroy each other and then try to find the kernel of humanity left there.

The title felt a bit pretentious to me until I found the reference: While reading The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians, she stumbled across this: Life: a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation (184). 

These words, especially constellation, seem to perfectly describe life’s processes–and when considered out of a medical dictionary, have enormous metaphorical weight.  Each individual character in the story was actively involved in each phenomena–each has that individual constellation of connectedness between irritability and growth, adaptation and organization, and so on.  When the individual stories are layered, all of a sudden the night sky, and the human story, becomes infinitely more complex.  I’m fascinated by the way individual stories lend themselves to larger historical narratives and I think it is absolutely necessary for us to understand both.  I mentioned this concept a few weeks ago when I was thinking about why reading narrative (fiction or nonfiction) is important: we get to hear voices and understand places that are so far outside our own experiences, and by doing so we become more aware, more empathetic, and (thankfully in my opinion) more understanding of the fact that life is deeply more complex than the two-sided camps that much of American media portrays.  This is vital if we are to make real progress as humans.

To end, I wanted to share this excerpt from Sonja (who copes by quantifying and distancing), as she looks at Havaa upon her arrival.

Those smooth, spit-cleaned cheeks gave no indication of the dreams crowding her skull.  Should she make it to adulthood, the girl would arrive with two hundred and six bones. Two and a half million sweat glands. Ninety-six thousand kilometers of blood vessels. Forty-six chromosomes. Seven meters of small intestines. Six hundred and six discrete muscles. One hundred billion cerebral neurons. Two kidneys. A liver. A heart. A hundred trillion cells that died and were replaced, again and again. But no matter how many ways she dismembered and quantified the body lying beside her, she couldn’t say how many years the girl would wait before she married, if at all, or how many children she would have, if any; and between the creation of this body and its end lay the mystery the girl would spend her life solving.  For now, she slept. (49)

Want Not.

(First, a note:  Sometimes life happens and my blog gets ignored.  The reading is still happening, for learning or escape purposes, but the time to reflect gets lost.  I’ve finished 5 books since I’ve last written and hope to catch up in the coming weeks, since now I’ve got nothing but time for a couple months.)

Summer in New York City is when I am most cognizant of waste: the waft of overflowing trashcans baking in the sun is, unfortunately, the smell I now associate most with July and August.  It is frightening to imagine the visual of the waste this city produces.  It seems that our culture’s general attitude is one of “throw away” convenience–and in one of my recent reads, author Jonathan Miles asks the readers to earnestly consider what we think we want, what we actually want, and the way we deal with the waste that is leftover.

Chosen for a teacher book club, Want Not is a novel made of three storylines that just barely overlap by the book’s end.  I can say with certainty that I didn’t love reading it, but once I got about half way through I began to appreciate the questions Miles was asking of his readers, stemming from the mantra “waste not, want not.”

For context, one storyline is of two “freegans,” a young couple living off the grid in New York City, squatting in an apartment for shelter and dumpster diving for food.  The woman is steadfast in her beliefs and the man a bit more electrified by his girlfriend and the thought of going against his materialistic parents than the idealism behind their lifestyle.  The second is a couple who lives in a “McMansion”: the wife lost her first husband on 9/11, the same morning she found out he had been cheating and planning to leave her.  Her second husband is a materialistic, narcissistic millionaire by way of debt collecting.  The final plot revolves around a middle aged professor on a committee to help design a site for nuclear waste whose father is battling Alzheimer’s and whose wife recently left him.

There were three questions I thought Miles was asking the to think about the story wove through at least seven narrators:

  • What do you desire in life?
  • How do you chase those desires? How are they related to the economics of your existence?
  • What do we do with our waste, both literal and metaphorical?

He suggests that in American culture today, people want immediately and easily: from iced coffees to homes to relationships, and this kind of wanting has broken down the notion of true meaning in life.  Though this was a long read and not every character has a personal revelation about the definition of waste and ill-pursued desires, by the end a sense of hope creeps into the plot.  One character begins to get rid of his “stuff,” starting with the extra things he had sitting around his house.  However, he started getting rid of most of his belongings: “With every sale or gift he could feel his broken life dematerializing, its old scarred edifice crumbling, the invited looters fleeing with its junked remnants, and with that feeling came astonishing relief,” (318).

As he came to reflect, the realization came: “Everything is salvageable. Even you,” (329).

I’m not sure that I could flat out recommend this book, because it took some serious work to get into, but I would recommend thinking about what you want from life–and if those wants are enriching and adding meaning or if they are piling up and taking up space but actually leaving you empty.  It is possible to reclaim a life you want to live.


My spring break has been a lovely one.  I got to turn my state-test riddled work brain off and simply relax, which included the High Line and margaritas, Brooklyn Heights brunch, visiting my parents in Louisville and of course, reading (because I also got to turn my grad-school-brain off).  I read my former student teacher Lindsey Palmer’s new book Pretty In Ink (narrated from multiple women’s voices in the post recession magazine industry), a short ghost story called The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill, Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement and The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker.  After spending so long in The Goldfinch (thoughts coming soon), it was nice to have some time to literally get lost in so many stories.

I’ve lamented with some of my friends about the overabundance of novels about privileged, educated people having existential crises–and though I still read them and sometimes enjoy them, I often wonder how it is expanding my world or helping me to know the world as a whole in a better way.  It feels easy and relatable to read conflicts that could be my own, but they usually don’t challenge me as a person.  Over the summer, Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane opened my eyes to different kinds of fiction, and I would say now that Prayers for the Stolen helped transport me to a completely different and necessary place.

It takes place mostly in Guererro, Mexico, in a village where all of the men have left in search of work in the US and the women are left to survive on little and protect their children from the drug cartels.   They cut their daughters’ hair, blacken their teeth, and dress them like boys to prevent them from being stolen.  The main character in the story, Ladydi, is saved because laid in a hole her mother dug in the backyard when the cartels came through town.  Her story takes her to Acapulco as a nanny, and ultimately jail when her name is wrongly entangled when a murder implicates a friend.

My husband has been reading a book about the Mexican drug cartels, and Prayers for the Stolen is like the perfect companion because alongside the horrific realities a reader obtains from the nonfiction, this fiction tells the story of a hidden population of women, but whose fierce spirits have been forged through survival.  About half way through the story, Ladydi’s mother is enraged that a magazine is going to run an issue about what it is to be a woman, but doesn’t believe it will capture anything that is true, be it the existential struggle or the blunt truths of their day to day realities: ” Do you think those Mexico City women writers are going to write about the sadness?” (85).

The answer is a resounding no.

And there it is, again.  When my reality is not what these women face, I can so easily get lost in my own plights nonsensical in comparison.  And I wonder if, though I can’t directly help, maybe it is the prayers that matter. For all of us.

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.