Category Archives: community

Poetic Connection: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

It is rare to find an author who sees people the way that you do and in an age where it seems like so many modern authors are jaded and whose characters are disgruntled, bored, angry adults, reading Van Booy’s work is a breath of fresh air.  His prose is like poetry and it is impossible for me to not get caught up in them.  My favorite book of last summer was Everything Beautiful Began After and then I immediately sought out his collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love.  While I was browsing at my local book store, surprisingly open on the 4th of July, I saw on the front table that he had a new book out and I couldn’t help myself even though I have a large stack of books to read on my nightstand already.

As I meet his characters, they are still open to the possibility of beauty and hope, even if it has felt long vanished from their lives.  And this I believe is what a lot of today’s modern characters–and people, of course–are in desperate need of:  tiny moments that can begin to rewire the joy that has seeped out of living.

The Illusion of Separateness opens with a quote from monk Thich Nhat Hanh: We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.  The concept that Van Booy carries throughout his story is that the feeling of separateness is an illusion.  I wonder about the original context of the quote and what the “here” is meant to convey.  It could be on earth.  It could mean in this moment.  Or it could mean in an intentional place–literal or psychological–a readiness to face where life has taken us.  And perhaps it is in the journey of awakening we realize it is often those tiny moments of beauty and longing that connect us to those around us, whether we realize it or not.  In the book, that is part of the beautiful mystery.  The reader, by the end, is able to see the connections between the vignettes of characters presented to us from 1939 to 2010, from England to the East coast of the United States, but not all of the characters see the connections that draw them together–but–they each are able to find a bit of peace as they begin to see themselves in the larger context of humanity:

We all have different lives, Martin believes–but in the end probably feel the same things, and regret the fear we thought might somehow sustain us (16-17).

In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment–we are all defined by something we can’t change (82).

Everyone was searching, he thought–trying to unravel the knot of their lives (152).

I’m not sure when life becomes that knot–but once we realize that nearly everyone feels it, all of a sudden just that knowledge lifts some of the separateness.  Not just empathy but community is born out of the shared brokenness–but through it has the ability to make life beautiful and poetic.
And of course, it brings the reader back to what I probably write about too much on here: why we need to read literature to understand humanity–and let our understanding of characters help us to look for the lives behind the faces we pass each day.

One of my favorite parts of the book (beyond the achingly beautiful character sketches) was that the characters took care of each other–often as strangers.  Be it with a bag of tomatoes or shelter in a war field.  Just like all of my favorite books do, this one makes me want to look for more poetry and hope in the cracks and corners of my world.

The inanimate protagonists among us.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is a novel in which each chapter focuses around a different protagonist, all of whom work for an English language newspaper in Rome.  In between each chapter is a short section in italics about the history of the paper.

The title made me think about who the imperfectionists are.  Each chapter’s protagonist envelopes perfectionism in a different way, while simultaneously embracing–sometimes unknowingly–the imperfections in other areas of their lives.  It actually brought me back to my sophomore year English class discussing Stradlater, the secret slob in The Catcher in the Rye.  Since there are so many characters, each chapter really felt like I was peering through a window into the messy details of their lives that their newspaper coworkers had no idea existed. And, all the while, these imperfect beings–who still have incredible strengths–create a daily paper, which is the true protagonist of the story. It is no more perfect than those putting it together, but it breathes and ignites a certain passion, making it a most interesting character.

In response, I’ve been thinking about the inanimate protagonists of my own life–places and objects that could command their own story within mine and perhaps thousands or millions of others’ lives, connecting us with some giant spool of thread.  Through time some are delegated to mere supporting characters in my past as others step up to help define my current era of life.

I loved thinking about all of the stories that the paper had witnessed throughout the years–and the way that people feel an attachment to it throughout.  I think about places like my high school’s football stadium and the innumerable Friday nights I spent there from age 10 or so through high school, and then everyone else who has done the same, past and present.  Or walking through academic quad on Miami’s campus in the fall.  Or making peace with the city on the Hudson River with tea in hand.

For better or worse, I know that I can kind of be a sentimentalist, but these are what create community across generations–the kinds of things that anchor people and make them feel at home.  And, as a lover of fiction, thinking of them provides me with endless fodder for imagining all the stories that have unfolded before them–and a little sad that most will not be written down.

And I think, just to flip this idea for just a second, that if we all stopped to think about what our mutual antagonists were–the visible or invisible forces that also connect us with spools of thread–if it would deepen the sense of community and understanding and empathy?

in the company of those who struggle.

I came across Mary Karr’s book Lit after I read an article in New York Magazine about her, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen.  I had read all of the authors except for her and sought out to get a copy of The Liars Club.  Then I found Lit, an incredibly written memoir based in Karr’s alcohol abuse, the dissolution of her marriage and recovery, on a brownstone’s stoop and decided that would work.   I later found out that a few friends of mine had recently read and loved it, so I moved it to the top of my “to read” stack.
{I’ve learned that sometimes I love to share the story of how I stumbled upon a story.  Thanks for indulging me.}
There are a few parts from Lit that I haven’t stopped thinking about. One was that her recovery and redemption came in the company of those who struggled, too.  Karr found herself in AA with a mix of every kind of person imaginable, none of whom she would have sought out on her own.  The friends she made there were from across the social spectrum, people whose paths would have never crossed otherwise. And yet, they became a lifeline for one another because they deeply understood that struggle is best endured together. No one lives immune to hurt–and that means that each of us has something in common with every person we meet.  
I would not normally call myself a cynic, but in the winter it happens from time to time. For some reason that was the space my mind was inhabiting in the week I was reading this book: not in response to the book, but just in response to life.  I often get frustrated at the instagram-portrayed life.  Don’t get me wrong, I think small moments of life’s poetry are worth sharing, but sometimes it is easy to start thinking that everyone around has a perfectly curated life.  I know this theory is false.  Or, I start soaking in cynicism about the self promotion social media induces.   I’ve found that when I remember that I am always in (and a part of) the company of those who struggle, my heart seems to grow in compassion.  
I am always trying to teach my students that books make us better people because we learn to empathize with almost any character once we understand the ins and outs of his or her story.  Sometimes the teacher needs to remember this, too. 
 I also didn’t realize just how much spirituality was a part of Karr’s journey, and when added to a life rich in real community, a portrait of how beautiful–and simple–life can be rose before me. 
Therapy rescued me in my twenties by taking me inward, leaching off pockets of poison in my head left over from the past.  But the spiritual lens–even just the nightly gratitude list and going over each day’s actions–is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved,” (304).
I really can’t add much to her words, except that by allowing herself to consider, and ultimately accept, the way faith, not religious duty, could change a life, her life and mental landscape began to change.  Sometimes I forget this–and reading Karr’s story became one of the brightest reminders of my winter–and my own cold weather induced cynicism and anger has begun to slip away.  

"It is my belief… that the truth is generally preferable to lies."

~J.K. Rowling, “The Beginning,” Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2000, spoken by the character Albus Dumbledore

Devouring is probably the best verb to describe my current re-reading of the 5th book in the Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix. Without fail, these books literally transport me from whatever else I am doing into the world of magic. This may be to a fault, though, because there’s a chance that I may or may not, sometimes, use them as an escape mechanism or at least read well past what should be any teacher’s bedtime.

A friend of mine recently said that what she likes the best about book 5 is the community that is within it. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since (see above and my tendency to be dragged in). However, rather than bordering on obsessive, it has reminded me of the importance of being surrounded by people who are fighting your fight with you. In the book, the adults who know the truth about Voldemort have banded together as The Order of the Phoenix to share that truth and to work against him. At Hogwarts, Harry is finally able to find comfort in the DA-a group designed to teach students to protect themselves against Voldemort. This is the only place where Harry does not feel like a crazy person; where he knows that there are people who believe him and who are rallying for truth. I’ve noticed this in my own life, as well. When I spend time with people who want to live life differently than how popular culture tells us to, I find myself more secure in my desire for that as well, and more energized to actually follow through.

I’ve also mentioned before my love of Albus Dumbledore. He is the headmaster of Hogwarts and the only wizard Voldemort is afraid of. As the series progresses, he does more and more things that seem outrageous and appear not to make any sense. But Hermione says it best: “If we can’t trust Dumbledore, who can we trust?” Like Hermione, Harry and Ron, I have found that I love the feeling of being safe even when life is swirling and not making sense. I love knowing that someone True and Real is taking care of the bigger picture.

Sigh. It is 10:35 have been reading since about 7:30. (And yes, this is one of the most perfect ways to spend a Sunday night.) That being said, I’m going to end my ramblings here. I could carry on for quite a while, though. But seriously, I just needed to share my love of Harry with you.

Continuing Thoughts On Windows

To what degree do we let people in? To what degree do we let ourselves be seen?

To what degree do we want to be in other people’s lives? To what degree do we try to actually see other people?

Sometimes I find myself looking at people as thought they were behind glass; just there to look at and observe. I can watch their movements all I want. They are not hidden–from sight, anyway. But behind glass, yes. Beyond my reach, of course. It is safer that way. No messes. No involvement. But really is gained? One more selfish moment in my life, I suppose. A few more minutes to contemplate my own well being.

And what does it say that I am so anxious to gaze into the lives of characters in the books I’m reading, but am not so quick to jump into the lives of the people that surround me each day?

In “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” (sorry, English teachers, I have yet to figure out how to underline a title on a blog) one of the main characters, Caroline, thinks about her daughter with down syndrome: “They’d never really see Phoebe, these men, they would never see her as more than different, slow to speak and to master new things. How could she show them her beautiful daughter: Phoebe sitting on the rug in the living room and making a tower of blocks, her soft hair falling around her ears and an axpression of absolute concentration on her face? Phoebe, putting a 45 on the little record player Caroline had bought her, enthralled by the music, dancing across the smooth oak floors…” (page 162).

There is such beauty in the way that this woman sees her small daughter. The way that she sees the depth and mystery of her young heart; the poetic in the simple and everyday. I often wonder, but rarely follow through, what it would be like to look at people like that. It does bother me that this feels cliche just typing this out. I picture Sunday School teachers in my head (no offense, I have been one), clamoring for us to see the good in everyone. But I guess what I want to look for is not the good, per se, but the beauty. The mystery that is each person.

At the same time, I have to consider if I live my own life in a window. If to be known and understood is one of the deepest desires of the heart, why on earth am I so slow to let that out? (Please pardon all the questions. I warned you this was for thinking as I go.)

This book is so filled with secrets…characters not sharing significant moments of their pasts; building up inner walls around what is actually going on in their minds and hearts. They are left, obviously, in a swirl of thoughts wondering what has happened to all the images they once had of what their life would be, or the shell-like image that their lives have become. It is hard for them to even believe that poetic even exists anymore, unless it is in a cringe-like self realization of its loss.

The interesting twist is that a stranger walks into one of their lives and is able to see it…but does that mean as much? Maybe. Sometimes. But how much more to be able to see those who are intricately involved in our lives? To look past the window of what we think we already know?

My heart hurts watching these characters and the mess of windows in their lives to the degree that I have been tempted more than once to abandon it immeditately and reread the next Harry Potter (in good time, in good time). But I think that must tell me at least a little bit about myself… I am tempted to keep even fictional characters at bay. Aye.