Category Archives: freedom

Flight Behavior

I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in 2008 and The Lacuna, which I wrote about a few times in 2010.  I deeply appreciate the way she is able to dive into the heart of a people and place, their sense of self and home, and challenge her readers to reconsider the way they are processing the world.  Her latest, Flight Behavior, is a book centered around monarch butterflies who have left their usual flight pattern and roosted for the season on the hill of a small, woflightbehaviorrking farm in the south, bringing beauty and wonder to the locals, but alarm to scientists who come to study the displaced creatures.  The two opposing ideas Kingsolver explores are: “If fight or flight is the only choice, it’s way easier to fly” and  “A person can face up to a difficult truth, or run away from it,” (322).

The main character, Dellarobia, is a smart but unhappy woman who married young when she got pregnant and lost the opportunity to be one of the few in her town to go on to college.  Her husband’s family runs the farm where she lives and in the beginning of the story, she is on her way to cheat on her husband, ready to flee her reality.  She is stopped in her tracks when she comes across thousands of monarch butterflies and is stunned, believing it a miracle and a sign that she needs to return to her family.  She becomes friends with the scientist who leads the study of the monarchs and uses the family’s barn as lab for him and his students, and eventually does some work for them as well, giving her a new vision for what she wants from her life.

Flight behavior is not only applicable to Dellarobia.  Her family has decisions to make in terms of its failing farm, the scientists have to decide the extent to which they can fight for their beloved monarchs, and the butterflies themselves stand as an environmental metaphor–whether it is possible to fight against the climate changes that have altered their regular flight behavior. All of these “fight or flight” conflicts give the reader a much deeper understanding of people, and honestly, Kingsolver is able to paint a beautiful picture of the educated scientists and their brand of being good to the environment side by side with Dellarobia’s small town, mostly uneducated brand that comes by way of necessity.  She writes against the stereotype of ignorance, and allows us to know the people behind it, which I think is a life lesson for us all.

By the end of the story, I realized this is a book about knowing when and how to fight or fly, and discerning when each one is important, necessary.  It was fascinating to follow Dellarobia’s  flight and flight decisions: as she got to know and understand herself more, her reasonings changed.  Ultimately does end up flying, but in a completely different way than in the beginning, when she was walking up the hill to have an affair.  It is more on level with what it looked like to watch the monarchs all using their wings.

Want Not.

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(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.

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

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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.

You should read this now.

I randomly revisited David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech for Kenyon College that he gave in 2005.  It is the best text I have read in a long time and at the same time heartbreaking, knowing that he died three years later.   You might click on the link and think that it’s too long, or think that it requires too much mental gymnastics for a Friday afternoon, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

"I put it down on paper and then the ghost doesn’t ache so much."

About a million years ago, a good friend of mine mailed me a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and said it would probably change my life. He was right.  This book holds everything I love about literature inside of it–and really, a blog post isn’t enough–you should read it and then we should meet for coffee to talk about it.

 It is a collection of snapshots that chronicles the coming of age of Esperanza (in English, hope), a girl growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.  Cisneros’ use of vignettes instead of a standard narrative structure captures stolen moments and insights that together create a portrait not just of Esperanza, but of longing and small beauties, anger and angst.  Though short and incredibly readable, this story is complex.  Her poetic style brings the beautifully tragic peripheral characters of Mango Street to life, each desperately seeking freedom, each desperately breaking and inspiring my heart:

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life. 


Alicia, whose Mama died, is sorry there is no one older to rise and make the lunchbox tortillas. Alicia, who inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university.  Two trains and a bus, because she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin.


Cisneros gives Esperanza an eye for tiny details and a writer’s heart that carries the weight of her neighborhood.  She writes a poem:

I want to be
like waves on the sea
like clouds in the wind
but I’m me.
One day I’ll jump
out of my skin. 
I’ll shake the sky
like a hundred violins. 


Esperanza, who is not beautiful, but is smart.  Esperanza who is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, a tiny thing against so many bricks, who looks at trees.” I love picturing this girl gathering her strength and her pen and shaking the sky with all of her might.


Toward the end of the novel, her aunt almost prophesies over her:


You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free.


As a person who writes often, and especially as an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time wondering what exactly this means.  For Esperanza, it helps her to channel her emotions and her anger:


I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.  


This is why I love writing–and introducing students to writing.  I have found that the times in my life that I feel most at peace–even if life is swirling in a thousand directions–is when I am writing.  Most of the time it is nothing important, and often words I may never reread.  But just like Esperanza, once I’ve thought through my life with pen and paper, whatever ghost was haunting me doesn’t ache so much.

Esperanza reminds me of so many of my students–trying to figure out what it means to be a young adult, what it means to love, where to put anger, how to be themselves.  They all come from different places, and yet I think that there are vignettes of beauty inside each of them–and that somehow life would make more sense if they understood that.  I’m trying to remember if coming of age novels meant anything to me when I was their age or if I love them now in hindsight after surviving adolescence.

I realize it is naive to think that the world could be saved by writer’s notebooks. But perhaps we’d all be a little more emotionally healthy? Free from the demons that eat at us, free from the insecurities that plague us, because we’ve written them away rather than having them wake us in the morning and whisper to us as we try to fall asleep.