Category Archives: grief

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.

In preparation for our book club last week, a friend of mine sent out the article Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics? from the New York Times, and the ways that authors Mohsin Hamid and Francine Prose answered the question was fascinating. At the end, Prose writes: “After reading Chekhov, I feel, however briefly, that we are all suffering humans, deserving of sympathy and tenderness. Who knows how our social and political lives might change if we were all persuaded to read at least one Chekhov story each day?”

And perhaps its not Chekov, but she is onto something with this daily reminder. I was walking not long after I read the article to the subway to get to my book club and evening light was just setting in when I turned the corner and saw two of my students laughing at a man’s dog that was jumping and doing tricks. This year at work has felt difficult–partially because that is the nature of being a part of community who wants to teach well, and partially because of the political atmosphere that exists for teachers right now in New York State. It’s easy to feel discouraged, to say the least. But seeing these two students outside the building just laughing and being kids, however cheesy it may sound, made me so happy. It was the reminder I needed, like Prose said. That moment literally turned me from someone feeling rushed, discouraged, and tired back into an inspired, joyful person.

For book club, we read The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, a debut novel by Christopher Scotton. One of our members interviewed him as the book was getting ready for publication and was able to arrange for him to join our book club for a half an hour for a conversation about the book, which was an amazing experience and made me like the book even more. Emily’s interview is a much more beautifully written overview than what I can provide here, but to briefly explain the story, set in IMG_0284the 1980s, a 13 year old Kevin and his grief stricken mother spend the summer in her hometown of Medgar, Kentucky to live her father after the tragic death of Kevin’s brother. Her father becomes the rock that Kevin needs at this critical life juncture and local boy Buzzy the best friend. Scotton pulls together a story that connects the smaller story of grief and growing up with larger threads of social justice connected to Medgar’s mining of the mountains and the town’s struggle to accept difference. For me, it was a book that allowed me to completely escape from my day to day and reminded me of a mix between To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me.

What stuck with me the most from our discussion is the fact that Scotton mentioned he wrote this book with his sons in mind–and how he wanted Pops, the grandfather, to feel like the kind of grandfather kids should have. We extended this conversation afterwards into the idea that this book questions the dominant narrative of what it means to be a man–the poignant picture of Kevin dealing with his grief, and the way the reader sees Pops walk Kevin through the experience while simultaneously sharing his own story of grief over his wife is truly moving.

There is a moment in the story when Kevin and Pops are camping and see the Perseid meteor shower and at the end Kevin says: “I knew that I would never be able to look at the sky the same way again. And everything else I’ve seen since that early morning so many years ago–every waterfall, every canyon, every mountain–is judged by the watermark of what we witnessed that night” (341). We spent a lot of time, then, discussing moments in our lives that felt like touchstones–moments of connectedness and beauty that we can return to for strength. Moments that remind us of what is good and true far into the future. And though watching my students laugh and play with a dog isn’t exactly the same thing, for me this week it was a like a rescue boat and it reminded me to keep my eyes open for the good so that I don’t get swallowed by a life of overwhelm.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

51l1ADoTZzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by  Anthony Marra ended up becoming one of my favorite books of 2014. Set in war torn Chechnya, the settings alternate between Eldar, a small village, and a mostly abandoned hospital in nearby Volchansk.  The narrative structure reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See, which played with time and the order in which the story was presented to the reader.  In this story, there is a timeline at the beginning of each chapter that goes from 1994-2004, with the chapter’s focus highlighted.  Marra covers the interconnected story of about characters, focusing mainly on Havaa, a young girl whose mother had died and whose father was disappeared at the beginning of the story, the neighbor who takes her in, and Sonja, the only doctor at the hospital who returned to Chechnya from London to be with her sister, who has also disappeared.

In an interview at the end of the book Marra describes his style: “War breaks cities, buildings, and families, but also time and the way stories are constructed. To tell this story in a straightforward, linear fashion would fall short of capturing the absurd, recursive manner in which its characters assemble their chaotic narrative. All the characters in Constellation are trying to piece back together their fragmented lives, and I wanted to embody that in the novel’s structure. As each character attempts to rescue what has been lost, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole,” 394). Marra beautifully captures the struggle and desperation of each of the characters–enabling us to feel the chaos, confusion, and heartbreak alongside of them.

When describing her missing sister to border guards, camp officials, and aid workers: How could an instrument as blunted as language express one as strange and fleeting as Natasha? Metaphors failed her; Natasha could not be summarized, (271).  It was this sentence that helped me wrap my mind around what Marra was doing with the structure of the story–language cannot fully express a nation at war, let alone an individual.  The shifting in time, backward and forward through the memories of six or so individuals can provide only a glimpse of the confusion, the loss, the human weight of what happens when we begin to destroy each other and then try to find the kernel of humanity left there.

The title felt a bit pretentious to me until I found the reference: While reading The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians, she stumbled across this: Life: a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation (184). 

These words, especially constellation, seem to perfectly describe life’s processes–and when considered out of a medical dictionary, have enormous metaphorical weight.  Each individual character in the story was actively involved in each phenomena–each has that individual constellation of connectedness between irritability and growth, adaptation and organization, and so on.  When the individual stories are layered, all of a sudden the night sky, and the human story, becomes infinitely more complex.  I’m fascinated by the way individual stories lend themselves to larger historical narratives and I think it is absolutely necessary for us to understand both.  I mentioned this concept a few weeks ago when I was thinking about why reading narrative (fiction or nonfiction) is important: we get to hear voices and understand places that are so far outside our own experiences, and by doing so we become more aware, more empathetic, and (thankfully in my opinion) more understanding of the fact that life is deeply more complex than the two-sided camps that much of American media portrays.  This is vital if we are to make real progress as humans.

To end, I wanted to share this excerpt from Sonja (who copes by quantifying and distancing), as she looks at Havaa upon her arrival.

Those smooth, spit-cleaned cheeks gave no indication of the dreams crowding her skull.  Should she make it to adulthood, the girl would arrive with two hundred and six bones. Two and a half million sweat glands. Ninety-six thousand kilometers of blood vessels. Forty-six chromosomes. Seven meters of small intestines. Six hundred and six discrete muscles. One hundred billion cerebral neurons. Two kidneys. A liver. A heart. A hundred trillion cells that died and were replaced, again and again. But no matter how many ways she dismembered and quantified the body lying beside her, she couldn’t say how many years the girl would wait before she married, if at all, or how many children she would have, if any; and between the creation of this body and its end lay the mystery the girl would spend her life solving.  For now, she slept. (49)

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

Literature and Loss: Wave

I am currently taking an elective for graduate school called Death Education.  It sounds off-putting and dark, but was described for me as a class that every teacher should take.  It also meets for two weekends, so with those two endorsements, instead of trekking up to Teachers College once a week from Brooklyn, I decided to enroll.  One of the first topics we discussed together was the emotional impact of loss of any kind: from an object to moving, divorce to faith, confidence to health and of course the death of loved ones.

There is freedom in the angle with which we approach our research assignments and projects, so I am approaching the topic through the lens of what I do: an English teacher.  My thinking has been mostly applied to the treatment of death in young adult literature and the impact it has on its readers and my conclusion has been that young adults need to have access to books by trusted authors about death and loss because not only do they teach so much about life and loss.  Books I’ve referenced with my students are ones like Bridge to Terabithia, A Monster Calls, Counting by Sevens and the Harry Potter series. Revisiting these titles has taught me so much about grief and emotional endurance and survival, especially as we are dealing with the tragic loss of one of their classmates.

Meanwhile, I just finished reading the highly acclaimed memoir by Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave, which chronicles her story of grief after losing her two sons, husband, and both parents in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.  It is a story of such weight that I feel inept to say anything except I find it important to read and understand the stories of individuals alongside the over arching stories of the tsunami as a whole. In the same way that the young adult literature I have studied provides resources for my students, this book walks its reader through loss at its most intense–and rather than feeling like a voyeur of someone else’s hurt, it caused me to connect deeply with what it means to be human and I’m deeply grateful for  Deraniyagala’s strength to share this story with us.  It was as significant a read to me as Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.

At this point, all I can say is I’m thankful.

I am thankful to authors who courageously write through their experience and share it so readers can be changed by their examination and process. I am thankful to authors whose writing enables me to understand humanity: my own and that of each of the living souls around me.  I am thankful to authors who write about the hardest things so I can glean some of their courage when I face them myself.  I am thankful to story and its ability to help us heal.

A Monster Calls: a book about healing from grief, the power of story & some ruminations on the teaching of reading

My cousin recommended a middle grades book, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which is stunningly illustrated by Jim Kay.  I hadn’t yet heard of it, but apparently it is causing quite a stir, having already won the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.  It is beautifully written, smart, and the pictures are breathtaking–but it is not for the faint of heart; I cried for over an hour when I finished it, which I do not admit lightly.  There is such beautiful, difficult truth in this book, though, that I find it impossible not to recommend.

The main character Conor has been having a terrible nightmare, which he cannot talk about and does not reveal until the end of the story, that began when his mother started getting treatments for cancer.  In the mean time, a monster begins showing up at 12:07 every night, claiming that he only comes walking in matters of life and death. Conor has no fear of this monster because in comparison to his true nightmare, he isn’t scary at all.  The monster tells him he is going to tell him three stories, which are “the wildest things of all…Stories chase and bite and hunt,” (37) and then, he says, Conor will tell the monster a story–his story, his truth, what happens at the end of his nightmare, that he cannot tell anyone.

What is brilliant about the book is the way the monster interacts with Conor and the way that the stories he tells symbolize the complexity of what it means to be human–Ness has crafted a story that gets at the heart of pain and healing in a way that is significant and weighty and truthful for both 12 year olds and adults.  Through the narrative voice of the monster and his stories, he approaches life’s biggest fear–loss–in a heart wrenching, beautiful, and most important, truthful, way.

After the first story, they have this exchange:  “So the good prince was a murderer and the evil queen wasn’t a witch after all.  Is that supposed to be the lesson of all this? That I should be nice to her?” He heard a strange rumbling, different from before, and it took him a minute to realize the monster was laughing.  “You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons?” the monster said.  “You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?” (63).

This reminded me of some of the work I recently did at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s summer institute for the teaching of reading.  One of the best ongoing conversations at multiple sessions was about how students often don’t do the reading work that will move and change and transform them as people–they look at a complex text and often want to reduce it to the first lesson they can come up with–but this is empty work when in a rich text.  Life–and the best kinds of stories–are far more complex than to reduce to a single lesson.  And it is a sad day when amazing books get reduced to looking for a lesson (which seems to be what standardized testing is trying to do to reading–reducing it to a task, rather than an opportunity to understand what it means to be human, what it means to belong, to escape from reality for a moment, I could go on).

Conor goes on to say: “I don’t understand.  Who’s the good guy here?” The moster replies: “There is not always a good guy.  Nor is there always a bad one.  Most people are somewhere in between.” Conor shook his head.  “That’s a terrible story.  And a cheat,” (64).  This is where so many middle grade students find themselves–and because they have been trained to look for the “lesson” on a standardized test, or because for whatever reason they want to look for the easiest way out of a story rather than linger in what it is really offering.  The rest of the story follows Conor navigate and make meaning through the darkness in a way that stunned me as a person.

Like the monster says, stories are wild creatures.  They help us see.  They help us heal. And I love that it is my job to get books in the hands of kids and to teach them how to make their thinking messy, because that is how life goes.