Category Archives: escapism

The July of nonfiction and fire escape porches.

I stumbled across a poem by my hero Mary Oliver yesterday, and it’s an interesting place to begin as I think of my summer, and though it wasn’t in my mind yet, these lines encompass the theme of the past two months:

it is a serious thing /just to be alive /on this fresh morning /in the broken world.

{my people}

{my people}

When I teach reading, I tell students to pay attention to the actions of the characters–that they often speak deeply into what’s really going on or what they really need. I booked a ticket to leave New York City the day after school got out. That is exactly where I was mentally and what I needed. To go home and breathe. And, of course, to laugh, eat grilled food, and drink wine.

 

In July I realized that sometimes simply reading to escape is necessary–I disappeared into more than a dozen books and didn’t write about a single one. In a more physical sense, after spending ten days on my parents’ porch, I felt trapped just thinking about my Brooklyn apartment and its lack of one, so I threw caution {the potential $125 fine} to the wind and turned our fire escape into a porch. This mainly involved taking a beach chair out the kitchen window, staring down squirrels, ignoring the jackhammers in the front of the building, and breathing through my mouth to avoid the sour dishwashing air from the restaurant below. BUT. It was outdoor space and I happily spent almost every morning reading nonfiction on it: Long Life by Mary Oliver, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and Looking at Mindfulness by Christophe Andre.

{my "porch"}

{my “porch”}

The threads I began to see in these books was the value of pausing to create meaning from the world around me. I often pause to create meaning from the books I’m reading, but it was like I needed the fiction to remain an escape and to start reflecting on, interpreting, and being more. So, I unintentionally took a writing sabbatical and found myself joining my husband in making art on our coffee table, pursuing meditation, and learning how to play chess (and, let’s be real, watching Major Crimes and two seasons of The Americans). I got to the beach and to the woods with a dear friend. I wandered the city with Daniel.

Interestingly, on one of my last July mornings on the porch (August brought a week intensive class at Columbia, traveling, and now beginning to think about the school year), I found myself looking at the vine-y plants that migrated from the fence below, up the walls of my building and around the fire escape and saw that in order to climb, they shoot out these tiny arms which wrap themselves around anything nearby. I realized that my time in July was just that: reaching for the truths to sustain my spirit. Here are some of the ones that stayed with me:

“Where have these moments of reflection gone in our modern lives? Certainly not to the radio or television that we turn on as soon as we get home, or the screens that enslave us. Rather than being ways of ‘taking our minds off things,’ these actions, particularly when they become reflexes, stop our minds being rooted–the exact opposite of what reflection is all about.” (Looking at Mindfulness, page 93)

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.” (The Faraway Nearby, page 4)

[The earth’s] intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them. For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world’s appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” (Long Life, page 25)

It always seems to comes back to Mary Oliver: that though the world is broken, it is certainly beautiful. And there is meaning to be made.

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.

 

 

How reading short stories is reminding me to live more reflectively and intentionally.

I recently read a novel that could be described as a collection of somewhat interwoven short stories called Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell. I was drawn to this book because it seeks to explore the moment’s that shape women’s identity as women.  In hindsight, I wish I had read it slowly, as there wasn’t an overall character arc for each character, but a few snapshots of their lives.

This summer I read Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy and fell in love with his rich, poetic style of prose.  While on a walk through the West Village I found a collection of his short stories called The Secret Lives of People in Love and began making my way through them.  What I’ve learned, though, is that for me, short stories for me are best read slowly and sporadically.  If I read them as a novel, I don’t take the time to stop and think about what the author is trying to say in each one or mull over the small details that speak into human existence.

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that I am more grounded as a person when I’m letting my reading wash over my mind and impact the way I’m looking at the world.  I read through the first 13 of Van Booy’s 19 stories so quickly that my brain didn’t have time to consider the weight of lines like: “Without memory, he thought, man would be invincible.” One of the reason’s I bought Schappell’s book was because I wanted to think about how the female identity is formed–especially as I am teaching girls at such a critical developmental stage and stocking my library with books that they will be reading and thinking about.

This is not to say that all of my reading is deep and reflective.  The other book I’m in the middle of is The Snowman, a thriller by Jo Nesbo, which has been a distractive force and an escape from life this week.  Sometimes I need reading for that just as much as the kind that makes me stop and look at life differently.  But, for now it is time to slow down.  It is time to breathe deeply and reflect, especially in the midst of the devastation of my city and surrounding ones post-hurricane.  The roots that my reading deepens can then be taken out into the world, to be on the look out for small moments of poetry and to develop an eye that is sensitive to the human story happening all around me.

For those who have been wrecked that they weren’t called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it’s rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn’t have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)
Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in…He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn’t going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books–a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  “He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world–he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, ” (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  
When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: “Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they’re alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven’t been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin’s experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: “This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam,” (148).
As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children’s story), but he’s found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: “He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right,” (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: “Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him,” (311).  
The Magicians could be described as a grown up’s Narnia or Harry Potter–it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  
I don’t want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn’t room for magic–or at least hope.  Reading Quentin’s story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin’s hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality…Sure you can live out your dreams, but it’ll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead…The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 
One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: “Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded,” (216).
And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic–and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman’s book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can’t decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  
And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  
So.

the perfect vacation read for a lover of books.

New York City Schools take a February break the week of President’s Day.  Obviously, this is a huge perk of my job.  I didn’t plan anything, really, for the week and it turned out perfectly: hiking upstate twice (once by train, once by car, both poetic in their own ways) with great, old friends, pancakes at Maggie’s Krooked Cafe (the best pancakes in the world that I usually only get once a year in the fall), an amazing driving soundtrack, baking a Guinness cake with Bailey’s icing, making dinner for one of my best friends who happened to be in town for work, finally getting to Tom’s for brunch.  Sigh. And, of course, a lot of time reading.

{a February Friday, on vacation, midday}

I spent a the past few days getting lost in A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, which turned out to be the best vacation book ever, meaning it was a sheer joy to read–though not what I would call saccharine.  It is about a man and woman who meet by chance in a French mountain town, discover their mutual passion for literature and open a bookstore in Paris that only sells good novels.   This book was thoroughly readable and a celebration of literature as art, igniting passion in all those involved.  I felt as though the characters were my friends and I am left with the sadness that their story has ended.  I will leave you with this, from page 279:

We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure that he has taken.  We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world right next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it will always be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.”