Category Archives: existential struggle

It’s worth it to read the hell out of The Goldfinch.

goldfinch

And though it’s only May, I can easily say this has been my favorite reading experience of the year.  There are a few reasons for this, I think.  One, taking the time to soak up a book as a work of art changes the reading experience.  Knowing I was going to a book club meeting made me want to be sure I thought about what Tartt was up to as an artist.  Then, talking about the story in the backyard of a neighborhood cafe was an incredible time of hearing other perspectives and ideas.  I did a lot of underlining throughout the story, and then a friend read  her favorite passage aloud and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t marked in my copy (page 603 if you’re curious).  I’ve gone back to read that section multiple times since.

Knowing I wanted to share this process with my students–that there are real readers out there who study books for fun–also motivated me to basically read the hell out of this book.  This kind of thinking is rewarded by Tartt.  Though one could move through the book and be pulled by the plot, there are so many threads to unravel and questions to consider that by the end I felt as though I had a thoroughly philosophical experience. Not to mention that her writing is gorgeous.  The main threads I followed as a reader were Theo’s (the main character) development as a person, how the loss of his mother impacts the trajectory of his life, the role of chance and meaning in our stories as humans, restoration and hope, and of course, art.

(Though I won’t go into specifics beyond the basic plot, if you are hoping to pick this one up and want to go into it as a blank slate, I wouldn’t read any further.)

The reader learns in the opening pages of the story, from Theo’s present-day adult narration, that he lost his mother in a random accident when he was thirteen.  In his present day he had dreamed of her, and then takes the reader back to his 13 year old self and through the rest of the book, we watch him grow up.  On page seven he says, “When I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier…Her death was the dividing mark…I’ve never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did.”  Much of the book is Theo trying to walk through his adolescent and young adult life without clear direction.  Readers can ponder alongside: what anchors us as people?  How do we recover from various kinds of loss? What enables us to survive, endure, find peace?

The narrative sounds like him finally able to think through the course of his life in order to seek out meaning, which felt like one of the weightier issues for me as a person: freedom comes from reflection (and reflection can come in many forms).  Half way through the story Theo says, “It was years since I’d roused myself from my stupor of misery and self absorption; between anomie and trance, inertia and parenthesis and gnawing my own heart out, there were a lot of small, easy, everyday kindnesses I’d missed out on” (470).  I think and write about this often: how it is easy to mechanically go through the motions of daily life and to hold what we most need to work through either at arm’s length so that it never intersects with our thought patterns, or tucked so deep inside ourselves for so long that to unearth it feels much too difficult.  And so we move through life in a petrified state, in both the figurative and scientific state: we become scared and so we change to stone.

To say any more at this point would take away from your discovery through Theo’s journey,  so I’ll conclude with this: toward the end he says “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair” (771).  This, I believe is the key to enables us to feel truly alive.  And this is what we must work toward, each in our own way.

Once again, my reading reminds me to walk away from my to-do list.

{cover design by Anna Bauer}

My reading life has been consumed with graduate school.  Lately I’ve been studying Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan,  A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence by Carmen Farina (New York City’s new chancellor) and Laura Scott, countless articles on gifted education, and the middle grades novel Al Capone Does My Shirts to study narrative progression with a colleague.  Add into the mix a (wonderful) trip out of town and a Saturday conference, and it makes sense that my writing about reading–and just fiction reading–hasn’t been happening at a quick pace.

I finished The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht a few weeks ago.  I usually like to read reviews after I finished the book, but with this one and the unfocused reading life I’ve had lately, I actually wish I read this New York Times Book Review before I read it, so I could have done some better critical thinking about the beautiful work Obrecht did throughout the story.  The overarching narrative is about a young woman living in a vague post-war setting in the Balkans who is working to finish her medical training.  On her way to deliver medical aid to a small town, she learns her grandfather just died.  When she goes to pick up his belongings from where he died, Obrecht interweaves stories of her grandfather’s youth, which are essentially tales of superstitious new myths.

This post has been sitting in draft form for a couple weeks as I’ve frantically tried to grade papers, read articles, write papers, create presentations.  The weather outside remained cold and my days at work felt frantic preparing my students for the state test.  Sitting down to finish this post again, I felt like I had nothing to say.  But then I started thinking about the crux of the story for me: when one of the characters tells the narrator: “We’re all entitled to our superstitions,” (272).  At the moment, the narrator is the only one in the story who didn’t have some kind of stake in the unexplainable.  She armed herself with medical know-how and pragmatism–and until this moment in the story, her relationship with myth and superstitions was cynical at best.  By the novel’s end, she doesn’t become a believer in magic, per se, but she does not remain the same.

I’ve been so task-oriented, busy, and mad about the weather that I’ve forgotten to remember the existence of magic in the world.  My mental respites have been thinking about a future that doesn’t yet belong to me: one where I have some land and a garden, woods to walk in, seasonal rhythms that don’t involve honking cars or paved streets.  Of course, hoping for this future isn’t necessarily bad, but I do think it is existentially dangerous to live without a touch of superstition, or rather, an awareness of the beautiful and mysterious.

My hope is that this weekend, amidst the work, I would remember some stories and revel in what I can’t explain.  (And I wish I could reread The Tiger’s outside of my task oriented life, on a blanket in the park.  You should read it that way.)

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.

More Than This

 I read (and wept through) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness this summer, about a boy processing that his mother isn’t going to survive her cancer.  When I saw he had a new title out, I was quick to pick it up and I can confidently say I’ve never read a book like More Than This: it straddles science fiction and mystery while having 3 beautifully written, realistic characters.  Interestingly, it also deals with death: the first chapter starts with the narrator, Seth, drowning in the ocean near his home.  From there, he wakes up in some kind of afterlife, which he spends the length of the book trying to figure out while simultaneously facing some of the hardest, most difficult, as well as the most poignant moments of his prior life, covering namely loss, parent/child relationships, teenage friendship, identity, and first love.

To write too much about the plot and this afterlife of Ness’s creation would be to ruin the experience of reading the book (which I highly recommend), so I’m going to focus on a few of the life philosophies of some of the characters.  Ness weaves these philosophies not so much for the reader to choose one, but for the reader to become aware of some of the many complex ways people use to make their way through life, as Seth faces both his current life and what he finds as both of his former lives and attempts to cull meaning from each of them.

The hopeful. Seth’s friend and first love Gudman says multiple times throughout the book in Seth’s memory: “There’s always beauty if you know where to look.”  This phrase haunts Seth in his deepest moments of pain.

The seeker of meaning and the cynic.  Seth spends much of his time in the afterlife trying to figure out a greater narrative for what is happening to him.  Regine, one of the two people he meets there says: “People see stories everywhere…That’s what my father used to say.  We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.  We have to lie to ourselves to live.  Otherwise we’d go crazy.”

The escapists. When his parents are considering a scientific, virtual escape from their lives after a tragedy Seth father shares: “You mean Lethe. The river of forgetfulness in Hades.  So the dead don’t remember their former lives and spend eternity mourning them.”

This brings us back to the title–there must be More Than This.  There are parts of life that seem to make no sense and we must seek to find answers.  We must know the present reality isn’t always the only truth. Ness seems to be saying the answer doesn’t lie within a singular philosophy, but in a complex matrix.  The older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate openness to mystery and the more I’ve started accepting living in uncertainty.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have some anchors set down in a few key places, just that this life is so much bigger than I ever imagined.

looking for beauty and remembering how to live.

Springtime is when I come alive again–especially this year when winter seemed to stretch way too far into April.  The blossoms in the park and on the streets and behind my apartment make my heart swoon–and I’m always trying to capture them with my camera as their fleeting nature always gives me a sense of urgency and the beauty reminds me of what is real and true.

I’m currently on page 445 of 605 in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  My thought when I picked this one was that I was moving through books so quickly that it would be wonderful to have a long read that I could linger in for a while–I’m definitely lingering.  My nightly exhaustion from unpacking and setting up our apartment left me making about 5 pages of progress a night.  Luckily we are finally feeling more settled and I’ve resumed my mostly normal reading habits before bed. Then, of course in the past week and a half I’ve also had to read The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer and Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson for my graduate class.  Talk about a disrupted reading life. Ha.

Through the class I’ve been learning a lot about myself as a reader alongside how to best teach my students.  We moved in about a month ago now and I can say with absolute certainty that not taking time to write about my reading each weekend–which is basically taking time to reflect on the world around me and where I find myself in it–has left me feeling unsettled and not like myself.  So even though I’m not quite done with the book yet, I feel compelled to write about where my brain has been lingering over the past month or so while reading it.

A Fine Balance is a book about how 4 people’s lives come together in India in the 1970s: a woman who was widowed in her 20s after three years of marriage and has struggled and strived to remain independent, an uncle and nephew pair who were bold enough to learn a trade above their caste and left their village to seek work in the city, and a young student who was sent by his parents from their comfortable home and general store in the mountains to the city to study.  What I’ve been able to get to know the most through this book beyond these characters is an India that I confess I was utterly uneducated about: when in 1975 the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency that allowed the President to rule by decree and suspend elections and civil liberties.

When the student comes from the mountains to study, he is stunned by the way people live.  His new friend tells him: “The problem with you is, you see too much and smell too much.  This is big-city life–no more beautiful snow covered mountains.  You have to learn to curb your sissy eyes and nose,” (238).  As a wide-open-spaces lover turned long-time city dweller, over the years my own eyes have shifted into what I find beautiful.  Growing up, I spent so much time in t
he woods or in my midwestern suburban town where everything seemed picture perfect.  Beauty in New York is defined differently than my creekside wildflowers, backyard tomato garden, or street medians with planters.  New York’s beauty is mostly man-made, be it in the architecture or the energy, but it is also side by side with rats and urine-baked sidewalks in the summertime and of course, millions of people, most of whom do not live in luxury apartments or take cabs to work.  

The question I’ve been left thinking about is “what is beauty and how do we construct our lives around it?” The two tailors in the book live in one of the city’s slums until the government forcefully removes the residents and levels the slum in the name of “beautification.”  Of course in reading the story, I got to know not only the tailors, but the way of life in the slum and see pictures of the people there: and once you know the people, you begin to see the beauty–even if it’s amid a mass “toilet” that lies on the other side of the train tracks. Because there is a line that forms at sunrise to fill a few buckets with water from a single pump and the people in it are capturing water for their families to sustain their lives and having conversations and living life together.

So, sitting here in my apartment I’ve worked hard to make visually appealing and to feel like a home, I want to challenge myself to seek out true beauty this week: to look for it most of all in the spirits of people–be it my students, the deli guys who know my coffee order by heart, the people I sit next to on the train, or the ones I pass by on the street.  I want the spirit and beauty of humanity to be as much of a comfort to me as springtime blossoms or coming home to clutter-free counters and a tea kettle waiting for me.