Category Archives: family

Year in Review: 2014

2014 has been a year in which I’ve flown by the seat of my pants.  Graduate school took over most of my evenings and a large chunk of weekends–and though it’s been a lot of work and severely limited my social calendar, I feel like I am learning alongside some of the most passionate literacy teachers and from the all-stars of my profession. A great deal of my life at work was spent immersed in the world of inclusion teaching: thinking about what full time co-teaching would look like, trying to get the necessary supports ready, sitting in on interviews, clenching my jaw nervous about letting go of full control, and then feeling utterly thankful for the co-teacher I now share a classroom with and how much I’ve learned from the experience.  The team of teachers I work with has amazed me with their passion and drive–and the support that exists among us when at the end of the day all we can get out is “teaching is hard.” (True story. That was where the conversation took us at a party a few weeks ago.)

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This has also been a year where I’ve been so thankful for family.  We lost my grandpa in June, and I witnessed the definition of what family should be–and that is exactly what my grandpa would be the most proud of–having his five kids, their spouses, and his 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren together.  So many dad’s side of the family came to the services to stand alongside us. I’ve been able to get home to my parents 4 times this year to laugh and listen to music.  I celebrated my first Christmas away from home, but married into a wonderful family that includes the cutest nieces in the world and got to eat waffles from my mother-in-law’s grandmother’s waffle iron.  My apartment continues to be an adventure in shitty-coziness (leaks, slants, animals), but couldn’t ask for a better guy to check for rodents that may or may not have fallen from the ceiling.

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I’m still trying to weave art and poetry into my life, playing with watercolor and drawing, reading Mary Oliver. I journeyed through The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron and am still learning so much from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. But as always, it is reading that has built the backdrop of my year: opening my eyes beyond my daily existence, reminding me of bigger truths, letting me escape, introducing me to new people.    Here are the best of this year, linked to the post I wrote about them:

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker: recommended by my mom and a gorgeous story that explores the space between suffering and love, set mostly in Burma

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: an incredible book to read closely and the basis of one of my favorite book club conversations of all time

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: a surprising favorite that started as a beach read but stole my heart in the last third

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: the second half of this story beautifully (and surprisingly) pulled together threads of women’s history and walked me through grief

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: the most beautiful and thought-provoking book of the year, set mostly in Japan

Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: the most enjoyable book to read while in week 2 of a month long cold, with some tea, while it’s pouring. Fey/Poehler for president.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: stunning, though-provoking, lyrical WW2 historical fiction

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan: my foray into science-nerd reading which literally showed me just how big and wonder-filled the universe is

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki: I thought this young adult graphic novel would be for kids, but it was a poignant reminder of the complexity of the early teenage years

The Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra: the post for this book is still in progress, but its craft and themes taught me so much about Chechnya and life in a war-torn country

This is the end of my 8th year writing this blog. You can find lists from 2007-2013 here. I think I’m going to re-do an old reading resolution–read the books on my nightstand before I buy anything new.  Here’s the current pile:

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Looking for an unreliable narrator?

Sometimes certain stories are good for one’s soul: they enable readers to embrace the beautiful mess of it means to be human, or perhaps invite them into a corner of existence they would not have known or understood otherwise.  The Dinner by Herman Koch is not that book.  It is structured over dinner in a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam.  The narrator Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge, a popular candidate in an upcoming national election, and his wife to discuss a crime their sons committed together, which isn’t named until much later in the story.  I’m not sure that I would describe it as a psychological thriller, exactly, because it didn’t read like a standard crime novel, but it was brilliantly psychological in its narration in that the voice we are hearing is not a detective or the criminal, but a parent, who is one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve read.

On the surface level, the question raised throughout the book is: to what length should parents go to protect their children and at what age do children become responsible for their own actions?  On a deeper level, it is a novel of a man with little empathy grappling with his own psychological struggles that he is now forced to see in his son.  As he travels back through memory, the reader is sucked into his worldview and as we hear events from Paul’s perspective it is easy to align with his thinking.  At first.  And so perhaps it’s a book about the ability to become a victim of manipulation or good storytelling.  And then it becomes a book that leaves you scraping your jaw off the ground as you watch people cooly making completely unethical decisions.

The quandaries faced in this book reminded me of the mystery I read earlier this year, Defending Jacob, where the narrator’s son is on trial for committing murder and the family has to grapple with whether he is guilty or not, despite the public face they put on for the trial.  Both books also touch on psychopathy, which adds a fascinating and frightening angle to the crimes and the families themselves.

As a closing note, it was interesting to learn that this book was much better received in Europe than in the United States–apparently the average American reader is much more interested in a story that has likable characters and more cathartic closure.

Everything was safe and good: transitioning from childhood adulthood

I recently finished The Round House by Louise Erdich, which is the story of 13-year-old Joe who lives on a reservation in North Dakota in the late eighties whose mother is brutally attacked and changes everything he held to be true.  On a large scale, this book brought to light the inane politics and laws surrounding crimes  against Native Americans by non Native Americans, both on and off the reservation land.  And on a smaller, it shows how people move from being the protected and defended as children to wanting to be a protector and defender.

If you’ve been reading here lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about living with a sense of rootedness–so when life gets busy or difficult, I am able to remember deep truths about life–and this lens is informing my entire reading life and what stands out to me in a text, and this book is no different. There is a moment mid-story when Joe hears his parents come home and instead of his father sleeping in the guest room, as he had been doing on request since the attack, they both went into their shared room: “I heard them shut their door with that final small click that meant everything was safe and good (210).”

There are things as children that enable us to feel secure and be able to rest.  (I’ve written about it before here and here.)  Part of growing up is becoming aware that life is fragile and often uncontrollable.  I often miss the sweetness of being young and thinking that everything “was ok” once both my parents made it home from work and we were all safe in the house.  And yet, I’m convinced that there is still truth behind feeling safe: resting in the fact that I am not in control, seeing patterns in the natural world, and knowing there is something bigger beyond that holds us together as humans.  It’s a sense of safety that allows me to breathe deeply and not live in fear.

My school had our “Quality Review” last week and in the months, weeks, and days leading up to it, life at work was tense and stressful–a constant balancing act of hearing about the politics of education and things I needed to check off my list to play the game and remembering to look at my students and see them as people and remembering why I love my job in the first place.  On the second morning of the review, it started to snow pretty heavily.  My stomach was still in the knots it curled into since September, so I decided to take a minute in each class and turn off the lights and direct my students’ eyes outside.  We sat in silence and watched the snow fall for a few moments and took deep breaths.  It was amazing.  And healing.

I am trying to cull my inner Mary Oliver (more on her poetry soon) and allow the both the tradition of family and rhythms of nature (yes, even here in the city) to remind me that there are seasons, there is beauty, and within each there is safety: here is the snow that comes every year.  It is cold, but it is beautiful.  Thinking I am “safe” it does not come quite as easily as it did when I was a child, but it is there, still.
In the story, in a moment when he needs it most he wears his father’s shirt to gather strength.  As an adult he wears his father’s ties.  He is able to draw strength from tradition and memory and pattern and move forward, even when safety can’t be defined as the click of a doorknob.  And this is what I am thinking on as I get ready to go home for Christmas: the strength I can draw on from the rhythms my family has created and the beauty and truth that lay hidden beneath.

I’ll always love you, New York, and other thoughts from a family book club.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a reading family: my mom and brother devour novels, my dad reads an insane amount of news, my aunts and cousins frequently provide me with book recommendations and have kindred shelves in their homes.  My Aunt Patty recommended a book to my mom called Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which my mom also really enjoyed.  Knowing that my cousin Carolyn was coming out to visit and is also a reader, she thought it would be fun to have a mini book club while she was in Kentucky.  She bought two more copies, mailed them to Carolyn and I and included a letter about her plan.  (Well, she wrote Carolyn a letter about the plan.  I already knew.  My note said, “Kristen, here’s the book.” Ha.)

{my mom is awesome. also, props to my dad who mixed the drinks and took the picture for us.}

The story follows the narrator Katey through one year of her life–as a 25 year old in 1938 in New York City.  It is bookended with the narrator speaking from middle age, though still in New York, thinking about how there are certain decisions in life that end up shaping the rest of one’s years.  We talked about this for a few minutes at our screened-in porch book club meeting, and it has been the topic that has lingered with me since and settled into the forefront of my mind last night when I was organizing a few boxes of pictures and a trunk that holds old photo albums and journals.  When my mom asked the question if there were decisions we had made that had shaped the outcome of our lives, my obvious answer was moving to New York.  I ran across this picture last night which was taken a month or two after I moved to Manhattan:

{Central Park, fall 2003}

 I made albums documenting each of the first two years, certain that I’d only be in the city for a couple years before I moved back to “regular life” in Ohio.  I wanted to make sure I documented the adventure.  Ha. But somewhere in that third year I decided to stay, and I think it was that decision, more than the one to move to New York for graduate school, that has had the biggest impact on my life since.  That is when I began to count this city as home and stopped thinking about what I was going to do the next year.  I settled in and invested in the people and places around me.  I’m sure there will be decisions in the future that change my life and carry weightier meaning, but my 9 year relationship with New York has been one of the greatest influences on my life and who I’ve become.  Looking at this picture, I remember what it was like trying to find my bearings here–simple things like traveling by foot and subway and more complex ones like trying to concoct a blend of urbanity and midwesterness.  That feels so far away, especially when I realize that I’m about to enter my 10th fall in the city, my 9th year at my school and my 6th year of walking ten minutes to get there.

a short history of women.

The title of Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women tells just that, depending on how you read the title.  The story is told non-linearly through narrators of 5 different generations of the Townsend family, beginning in England in 1898 and ending in New York in 2007.  As Walbert writes the story, the reader gets not only the family history, but also a window into some of the unique struggles of women over the last 110 years–which doesn’t seem so long at first glance, but really is, especially considering that there weren’t more than three generations alive at once in the story.  It was fascinating to see as the reader the connections these women shared 100 years apart and at the same time a bit heartbreaking that the characters weren’t able to see them the way a reader could.

I have a huge extended family on both sides, and for almost two decades we were able to see four generations of my dad’s family in the same room and on my mom’s side we are going on 12 or so.  When my grandma passed away last summer, my dad and one of my uncles were reminiscing and I heard so many stories that I had never heard before, which was surprising because I hail from a story telling family.  It was a bit surreal at her burial because we were also standing here in Brooklyn amidst Robbins headstones dating back to the 1800s.  Like usual, I felt a part of something bigger, but there was also a twinge of sadness that there are some stories that passed with my grandma.

The same thing happens when I hear the handful of stories I know about my great grandmother on my mom’s side.  Because I am the story lover nostalgic that I am, I often find myself wishing that I could go back and visit with her about when she moved to New York from Ireland.  I always wish I knew more about the threads of similarities that I share with the women in my family tree or that my aunts and cousins share.  While talking with one of my aunts this spring who is a retired teacher, I learned that she used to dedicate a day to celebrate the Super Bowl in her classroom, just like I do with the Ohio State/Michigan game.  My family is so big that sometimes it is easy to miss those kinds of connections.

All that to say, reading about the Townsend women in this book was really thought provoking, especially when some of the stories are placed side by side: the 1914 suffragette in England and the granddaughter she never met garnering strength from her memory, the mom in post 9/11 New York dealing with her panic and her own mother embarking on a new life at the end of it.  It makes me wish I could have a collection of the narratives of the women in my family.

{four generations of robbins: my grandma, one of my aunts, 2 of her daughters, another cousin and her daughter and I.  Oh, and FNL and The OC.}