Category Archives: good reminders

Remembering truth, yet again.

hearing heartbeats

Often I find characters in books who are calloused–who have suffered and have created ways to walk through life with steps that enable them to avoid pain.  In turn, they also lose the ability to feel joy and beauty and sink into cynicism.  I am thankful to authors who can write this emotional place well–it helps me to feel less alone, especially when I’ve allowed busyness or the hard side of adolescent behavior to get the best of me in my day-to-day.   But though it is normal, I am realizing (yet again) at the end of a jam-packed semester it is not a way to live.

I have found myself saying countless times in the past few months: “well, when my grad school semester ends on May 13th, then I’ll be able to live more fully.  I’ll take out my paints and practice yoga and go for runs in the park again.”  While this goal-mindset has helped me to  move through the semester with fortitude, it has not enabled me live with an inner peace. Instead it fuels, accepts, and accompanies anxiety. The rest I do manage to get isn’t deep.  I began to seek out some nonfiction favorites like Brene Brown and Henri Nouwen to feed my soul.  And in a timely fashion, my mom handed me a book she’s been talking about for months that added a narrative angle to my effort to have a deeper peace.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by German author Jan-Philipp Sendker is a story framed in narration by Julia, the daughter of a wealthy Burmese immigrant father and American mother.   Her father, who she describes as a person who truly had an inner peace while she was growing up, abandons the family and his business and disappears shortly after her graduation from law school.  She ultimately decides to follow his trail to his native Burma in an effort to seek him out.  She meets a man who tells her the story of her father’s childhood, which is the main narrative in the book.  Julia comes to know a part of her father she never knew existed and as a reader, I was transported the same way she was by her father’s story of suffering, pain, love, and peace–and appreciated the truths that were able to be found within deeply complex and imperfect characters.

The story is written in  lyrical prose and moves back and forth between the reality of suffering:

“Life is interwoven with suffering. That in every life, without exception, illnesses are unavoidable. That we will age, and that we cannot elude death.  These are the laws and conditions of human existence,” (108).

and the beauty of life and love:

“Of course I am not referring to those outburts of passions that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot life without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person-a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on what we cannot.  No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.” 

Calloused cynicism is certainly an easier way to live, but it prohibits inner peace and rarely allows for true joy to appear.   About two-thirds of the way through the story, Julia remembers something about her father that I think gives insight to us all who are bumbling through busy days, sorrowful days, joyless days (and brings me back to my theme of the past year of developing life rhythms that help us sort through and make meaning from our lives):

Every evening before going to bed, he would sit in the living room, eyes closed, listening to music on headphones. How else will my soul find strength for the night, he had said quietly,” (234). 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and the curse of envy.

I probably should have read this book with people.  I think I may have had more grace with the characters if I had.  Though, I still read it quickly and stayed up too late reading a few nights in a row to finish it.  Perhaps it was these characters seemed too realistic and I’m tired of this reality.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is about a group of friends who meet at a summer camp for the arts and follows them through adulthood.  Five friends who live in Manhattan invite Julie, the main protagonist who lives in a Long Island suburb and whose father just died, into their fold and christen her as Jules.  She can’t believe her luck as she becomes part of, what seems to her, as the most interesting groups of people she could have possibly crossed paths with: a budding cartoon artist, a son of a famous folksinger, a dancer, an actress.  As they grow up, they have varying degrees of success–the cartoon artist becomes incredibly wealthy creating a Simpsons-esque show, one is involved in directing, one abandons his talent to attend MIT and study robotics.  Jules makes an unsuccessful run at acting and ultimately becomes a therapist and struggles to make ends meet with her husband.  A lot of the book is dedicated to Jules envy of her wealthy friends and Wolitzer explores within all of the characters what it takes to be happy.

Though I moved through this book quickly, I lacked patience with the characters.  It seemed to be that everyone was miserable.  And that was depressing.  Then as I started thinking about it, so much of the fiction I read is about adults who are miserable.  That was even more depressing.  I tried to unravel where this was coming from in our culture: can we blame it on advertising creating a constant want for more? Or perhaps our susceptibility to advertising? Or the way that our attention spans have shortened thanks to social media? The instagram-ification of curating one’s life? No.  I think it comes down to a bit of mental discipline.

I initially sat down to write this post on the 4th of July and didn’t get very far.  While I was trying to write at my annoyance of the characters not being satisfied with what they had, or seeking out satisfaction in all the wrong things, I couldn’t do it.  Because I was moping about the fact that I didn’t have beach access or a lake house or outdoor space or a hometown parade.  I could not shake the hunger of want (the post I ended up writing that day touched on it a little bit).  In hindsight now, I am humbled at my own ridiculousness–let’s look at this pattern of the rest of my day:

 My fiancee (the best person I know) made me waffles (my favorite brunch food) and forced me out of the apartment to go on a walk to the park (my favorite place in Brooklyn).  We got coffee (mental relaxation) and browsed Park Slope Community Bookstore (a bookstore open on the 4th of July felt miraculous).  We went to have burgers with dear friends and later sat with another dear friend while she had to get an emergency medical test done (both the essence of community). See what I’m saying? I have a lot to be thankful for and the things with the most true value are the ones that make life the most full, if I stop and think about it–and do that more than I dream of someone else’s lake house.  And once I realized that I had the same kind of envy as Jules, I was able to have more grace with her as a character–I can’t judge because I’m no better.

Interestingly enough,  one of my favorite quotes is on the sidebar of this blog: Teddy Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” They told me in graduate school that learning is recursive–sometimes I have to stop and just keep remembering for the umpteenth time where true life resides.  It, of course, is easier to complain and compare and want–but, the quality of life outcome just does not compare with training my brain to be thankful in the moment.

This year’s winter.

First,  I have been in discussion with one of my best friends who also happens to be a teacher about how we always think of the “new year” starting in September. We realized that the main way we identify ourselves is through our job, which in many ways is great: teaching English combines so many of my passions.  It is generally hard for me to do a year reflection, because since I’ve never left the school calendar since infancy, January to me is the end of the first semester…the half way point.  It feels strange to think about 2011 because I had two different groups of students.  I had two different curriculum plans.  But. This is only if I look at my life solely through my profession.
Second, I caught myself spreading my winter blues this morning.  I’ve written before about my how my college roommate and I diagnosed me with Seasonal Affective Disorder online in 2001 and about how spring-forward is my favorite day of the year.  I’ve probably even written about how I blame the school calendars of my youth who had flowers decorating the month of March (obviously made by a southerner) for the way my heart starts to get prematurely hopeful for warmer weather.  However, my personal-not-job-related goal for 2012 (the first fourth of it, anyway) is to have a better attitude about the winter.  There. I said it. Please, if you see me, remind me of this.  
Another dear friend sent me an essay from a book called Let Your Life Speak many winters ago about living through the seasons as a polite way of telling me to get a better attitude.  I return to it every year.  It tells me: “Winter is a demanding season…and yet the rigors are accompanied by gifts: …times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things…One gift of utter clarity as in winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque and see the trees clearly…Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.”  Another friend of mine moved to San Diego from New York and told me that perfection can breed complacency.  
So, I would like to live thankfully and intentionally this winter.  I realized the other day that I never posted about Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids (which would have definitely made it onto the Top Ten).  I reread my notes inside and what I found has a direct correlation with how I want to live in this cold season: 
“…it was the work in a hall devoted to Picasso…that pierced me the most.  His brutal confidence took my breath away.” (11)  “I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself…Picasso didn’t crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed.  He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people. When I had extra money I’d go to the Museum of Modern Art and sit before Guernica, spending long hours considering the fallen horse and the eye of the bulb shining over the sad spoils of war. Then I’d get back to work.” (65)
“But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings could create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.” (11)
“He [Robert Maplethorpe] contained, even at an early age, a stirring and the desire to stir,” (13)
I want to stare winter down.   If it makes me angry, I want to do let that anger inspire writing.  Or to fight against it with dinner parties.  Or crawling out of my hole and stepping outside for a run with my friends and then feel as though I have thoroughly kicked it in the rear.  I want it to inspire me to actually live rather than hunkering down with Netflix instant streaming. I want to sense a stirring and stir.

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

the small details which are actually huge.

I’m beginning to re-remember that the best things in the world are not something I can grasp onto with my hands: though the handful of pink spring petals I swiped from a windswept pile on the sidewalk the other day comes pretty close.  I was on the verge of finishing The Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins as I was watching them all float out of my hand and had a realization that they were evidence of things unseen; the ache of beauty and springtime right in front of me.

 It is a book intricate in its details and rich in the scientific and literary research that must have been compiled for the layers of meaning inside.  It was a book that rambled through its words so slowly and deliberately that at times and I wanted to put it down, despite my love of poetic language. But as I reached the end, I found myself wishing I had a professor telling me to go back and trace the repeated references and symbols, to stop and look at each of the characters and what they represent in its historical setting of the New Deal, the Atomic age and the Tennessee Valley Authority. And, to trace the evidence of things unseen, which is translated differently throughout the book.  Sometimes it is the mystery of science: atoms and light, and sometimes it is the mystery of life itself: love.

I loved how tiny, seemingly insignificant details, like springtime details in Brooklyn, provoked such deep emotion within the characters: “…in a narrow cubicle behind a curtain were her things, all neatly folded. When he bent to lift her shoes he was so unaccountably overcome with grief he had to lean against the wall to compose himself.  Her shoes, he realized, triggered the emotion.  The fact that they were empty, that he so rarely touched an article of clothing of hers she wasn’t wearing. And her shoes triggered the memory, sudden, clear as daylight, of the first time he had seen her, the first time he had seen her footprints in the sandy track that led to Conway’s furnace and the house she’d lived in.”

It just breaks my heart to read that and realize that such tiny details can reveal the depth of the human heart. I need to keep watching for them.