Category Archives: friendship

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.



Competitive friendships.


My Brilliant Friend is a novel, the first in a not-yet-finished trilogy, by the elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante that details the earliest years of a friendship between the unafraid, fiery Lila and the clever, though uncertain Elena in a poor Naples neighborhood in the late 1950s.  It is a novel of the time and place, for sure–as the reader, we watch the violence and passion of the neighborhood erupt in the name of pride and longing: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad,” (37). We see children fighting to free themselves from their parents yet without the resources, or heart, to do it, and so they couple off and begin again in the town they rarely leave.   But for me as a reader, this was a novel about female friendship–and at first you might be tempted to think it sentimental and nostalgic, but really it’s nothing of the sort.

The friendship between Lila and Elena is brutal.  Elena’s standing in her school is usurped by Lila and the other kids can’t stand her, but Elena is drawn to her.  As children, Lila seems to test to see just how far Elena will follow and remain her friend, and I read in disbelief Elena continued to be mystified and devoted to Lila, no matter how cruel she could be. In their neighborhood “the women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other.  To cause pain was a disease,” (37).  Lila manifested this as a young girl and used it with Elena and Elena did not want to back down and appear weak, so their friendship went on, more a repetition of challenges than an actual friendship–throughout their entire friendship. 

Their friendship became even more complex when Elena’s family allowed her to continue her studies and Lila’s family did not.  Near the end of the book, their friendship diverges.  If not for the prologue which is written from Elena’s perspective in her sixties and conveys that they are still friends (and sets up the trilogy), I would think that the friendship would dissolve, as often they do.  The more I thought about it I began to see how Lila pushed Elena and could be credited to the drive that enraptured her, but I was simultaneously repulsed by her manipulative behavior.  There’s a moment near the end of the novel where Lila calls Elena “her brilliant friend,” which is the way Elena had always seen Lila.  I’m left wondering about the truth or the manipulation behind the proclamation, or perhaps both.

The most thought provoking reflection Elena has about their friendship is this: “The better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become.  It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the joy or sorrow of the other,” (257).

This kind of unspoken competition simultaneously makes me sick and yet feels very human and familiar if I am to look back on some of my own friendships.  There are a few that feel as though they had a similar competitive edge to them–which brought dissension and drama into the larger group.  It brought my thinking back to The Interestings and what envy can do to one’s insides and in turn relationships.  It makes me wonder about why people feel the need to compare and judge themselves against others–not to sound simplistic or preachy, but it seems healthier to share in one another’s joys and sorrows–to bear them together, knowing that no one has it easy or has it all.  Maybe it bothers me so much because I teach 13 year olds for a living and hate watching these power plays amongst them.  Perhaps this is just something we  learn–or, choose to learn–when we are older.  It is definitely easier to be bitter, but there is no emotional health in it.  And yet, the competition seemed to drive Elena to her highest achievements, and so I am left with unfinished thoughts wondering yet again about the complexity of the human condition.

Childhood Favorites Post #1: Nostalgia in Bridge to Terabithia

All summer, I will be making my way through seven “childhood favorites” that I’m reading in preparation for my first unit in the fall. Luckily, this is the kind of work that I am more than happy to do. Bear with me, wait for adult books in between, or be inspired to pick up one of your favorites.

Bridge to Terabithia is a story about a boy with 4 sisters, a boy who feels misunderstood, a boy who wishes he were brave.  It is a story about friendship and imagination.  But most, for me, Bridge to Terabithia is a book of nostalgia.

I can’t put my finger on the moment that I couldn’t pretend anymore, but I do remember bring sixteen, baby sitting, and realizing that the magic of imagination and pretend had slipped away years before and I hadn’t even realized it.  It is a visceral realization of growing up.

As I read about Jess and Leslie creating their imaginary kingdom of Terabithia in the woods near their houses, I could think only about the worlds I created for myself in the woods across the street from my house, the places I made in our unfinished basement…and being able to physically will myself to believe it all for hours on end.  While I was reading, Jess and Leslie became kindred spirits.

They were moved by beauty, the feeling of fullness and wanting it to last forever: “They took turns swinging across the gully on the rope.  It was a glorious autumn day, and if you looked up as you swung, it gave you the feeling of floating. Jess leaned back and drank in the rich, clear color of the sky.  He was drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud back and forth across the blue.”

When I was younger, summer nights were the greatest.  All of the kids in my neighborhood would be running through our adjoining backyards, soaking up every last shred of daylight and catching lightning bugs into the twilight. Even though I knew there would always be another summer evening with cool grass beneath my feet and the smell of trees and creek and corn in the air, my heart broke when night finally came and we all had to go inside.  I spent many evenings after bed time with my face pressed against the screen, trying to breathe in the evening air for as long as possible.

They felt the need to create sacred spaces: “This is not an an ordinary place,” she whispered.  “Even the rulers of Terabithia come into it only at times of greatest sorrow or greatest joy.  We must strive to keep it sacred. It would not do to disturb the Spirits.”

Once in college, a few friends of mine and I found ourselves in an enormous grove of pine trees that were planted a hundred years ago in straight lines spanning for hundreds of yards.  Without even thinking, my friend Erin and I started sprinting down the aisle of trees…running and jumping seemed the only proper response to such a scene: we were so utterly joyful that merely starring at it all wasn’t enough.  My friend Matt took a picture of this pre-digital photography and caught us both in midair. It was in a frame for years and below it I pasted the quote: “Perhaps they could run over the hill and across the fields to the stream and swing themselves into Terabithia.”

This happened again when I went to England with two kindred and we saw true English countryside for the first time.  We just couldn’t believe that it existed in real life the same way we had pictured it in our minds in all our favorite books. I do have physical proof of our giddiness:

When the tragedy is revealed at the end and Jess’ horrid sister tells him blatantly, it literally plunged my heart like a dagger, even though I knew all along what was coming.  Jess and Leslie are just too kindred for it to not hurt like crazy.  It is the moment that the magic makes the first break: where it’s impossible to be completely immersed in imagination. But. It doesn’t mean that it no longer exists.

Bits of the magic come back to me sometimes and remind me that the world is enchanted.  Most of the time it’s when the eastern woodlands smell like Ohio.  Some of the time it’s when the sun is setting and the light is perfectly orange and the shadows purple.  Sometimes I feel again athe essence of my heart aching because of all that is beautiful and good. And real.

Soundtrack for this book for me:
Pacific Street/Hem
Why Should I Cry for You/Sting
All At Sea/Jamie Cullum
Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own/U2


Adolescent girl friendships are tricky.  Watching them everyday, I can almost pinpoint which friendships will last through high school for my students and which ones will be left behind, though eulogized in long, flowery messages in their middle school yearbooks; the kind that adults look back on and laugh at the promises to stay friends forever. Yes, those messages still get written.

After reading A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, a young adult Victorian Gothic novel that follows the story of Gemma Doyle and her ability to tap into magical, though dark, outer realms, all I could think about was what defines true friendships for young teenage girls?

Gemma, a new arrival to her boarding school, becomes friends with powerful, popular Felicity because she accidently finds out one of Felicity’s biggest secrets.  Instant friendship: go. Gemma has previously been repulsed (and fascinated) by Felicity’s treatment of other people, so she pulls her scholarship-roommate, Ann, who has been on the receiving end of Felicity’s cruelty into the mix. Instant friendship: go. Pippa is Felicity’s beautiful best friend, who is not into the idea of widening their circle, but since Felicity holds the power…instant friendship. Gemma hated the way Felicity and Pippa treated other girls.  Ann was in near constant pain and loneliness as a result.  Felicity cast Pippa to second chair once Gemma came around. Now, these four girls embark on dangerous, otherworldly adventures with Gemma into the realms. Can shared experiences override absolute contradictions in values?

Apparently.  Though I wanted to be a hater immediately and judge Gemma for her lack of strength in succumbing to the rotten social rank at her school when she knew better, there was really no where else for her to go.  It was interesting to watch these characters ultimately just want to be known by someone, and once they were, that seemed to be what bound them together as friends. They began to see that it’s harder to judge someone once you get to know them and their story.

When I look at my own friendships–the ones that have lasted over the years (not to devalue the worth of the ones that didn’t; the ones that were meant for a time and a place)–there are two major groups of people in my life: ones that I have shared experiences with (the high school version of coming of age, along with the adult version) and ones with whom I share a certain kindredness.  When I started writing this post, I wanted to rage on the ridiculousness of Gemma’s friendships, but have realized that no matter what their beginnings, the four girls came to see the world in a different way together. They experienced things together that no one else would understand.  And I still believe that one of the biggest joys in life is to be known and to know others. So. Despite Felicity’s power rush and Pippa’s vanity, Ann and Gemma each have their own faults, too, and in the act of living their lives as friends they came to show grace toward one another despite it all and grow as people along the way. So. Maybe I shouldn’t be such a hater.

Though, I still remain skeptic if the shallowly-based middle school friendships are up for this.  And I still can’t stand watching girls exert power over one another.