Category Archives: healthy rhythms

Beautiful Ruins.

9780061928123_custom-70e2b335f923fa2b9e2d96fcc5dbe44c914184d6-s6-c30I love my job for a lot of reasons.  I was reminded of the best one while at class a few weeks ago: that reading and writing are tools for meaning-making.  My professor handed us a copy of some of the new Common Core Standards for reading and writing, documents I’ve been looking at professionally for a number of years now.  She wanted to experiment to see if we could train our eyes to look at the standards in a new way: to find the “echoing chord” of the work it is asking us to do.  For instance, she looked at Reading Standard 1, which is about referring to details and creating inferences and said that for her, the small details of life have always mattered: small objects, a look, the things of small beauty that make her feel grounded again.  She said to create meaning from the standards, we have to leave reading and writing aside, go into our lives, and then return to reading and writing.  In that space we will find the moments and the lessons that will make our teaching come alive.

I proceeded to look through the standards in a way I’ve never done as a teacher.  All of a sudden, describing a setting in depth became deeply worthwhile.  I thought about what my home means to me: the chalk mural of Ohio and New York my husband made, our wall of old family photos, the urban basil we are attempting to nurture in the window.  These details began to tell a story of the place–and I realized that to teach setting, we can think about the settings that have been significant to us.  We can grow that into understanding characters and themes and moods.  It’s beautiful life work.  I went on to do this thinking with sequence of events, point of view, literary patterns…and I’ve never felt more passionate about the work I get to do each day.

And of course, I was finishing the book Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters on the train that day and everything came together beautifully.

The book’s cover is a picture of Manarola, part of the Cinque Terre in Italy, where I visited on my honeymoon last summer.  This plus an endorsement from a friend was enough to get me interested.  It is set in Italy in the 60s, California in the present day, and a handful of other places as we follow the various archs of the characters. It mostly tells the story of a young actress who finds she is pregnant with a famous actor’s child, and then finds companionship in the young owner of a hotel in Italy where she is sent by a producer to hide the pregnancy.  The reader follows these characters into the future, where their lives intersect 50 years later.

This was an entertaining read for the first half and then became a deeply poignant read for me.  Walters is writing, essentially, about story and meaning-making: how people are changed, shaped, and propelled forward.   By the end I was utterly floored by the ways he interwove these characters and their regrets, justifications, creative pursuits, and their journeys to make meaning in their lives.

There are a lot of gorgeous, thought provoking lines I could quote and write about, but without context, they lose part of their depth.  So, I will leave it at this: there is a moment toward the end of the story where the entire mismatched cast of characters are watching local theater in Idaho and find themselves stunned and moved by what they see and they all draw inward.  And this, I think, is what they were looking for all along: something that would propel them to stop, think, and make meaning.

The title provides some insight into the discoveries–beauty has emerged from the struggles.  Walters is insightful enough that not every character has revelations that bring rich insight and inner peace.  Through those characters readers can see the shells of existence that remain when life merely becomes a place to craft and project an image.

So, this book helped propel my current planning for my summer reading and adventuring…more to come soon, but it is all operating under the theme of looking at art and the details, draw inward, and live.

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 Gift of Solitude: applicable to all adults, as described in a young adult novel.

If there is one thing I try to share with my students throughout the year, it’s the idea that each one of them has a story: that you can never know someone’s story just by looking at them, that it is one of life’s greatest gifts to get to hear other people’s stories, and that it is a privilege for me to get to know theirs throughout the course of the year.  My hope is that they will take the time to really know one another and build a community of understanding, respect, and kindness.

And then I had a moment where I met a protagonist I wanted every student to know:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: We all want everything to be okay (page 6).

The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common (page 77).

In my experience, desire is desire, love is love.  I have never fallen in love with a gender. I have fallen for individuals.  I know this is hard for people to do, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard, when it’s so obvious (page 142).

A handful of my students were raving about Everyday by David Levithan in our weekly “Friday Favorites” five minute share and after hearing the premise, I knew I wanted to check it out.  The protagonist, A, is essentially a soul (without a gender): s/he wakes up in a new body everyday while maintaining a fully developed sense of self–just no physical body with which to express him/herself.  This is one of the most thought provoking and creative young adult books I’ve ever read.  It touches on so many young adult emotional-development issues, but not in a preachy way: the protagonist authentically brings them up and because his/her life experience is so different than the average human, and based on what I’ve witnessed in my classroom, I think young adult readers will just soak it in.

But I also found a section that spoke into everything I’ve been thinking about lately: maintaining a sense of self, of peace, of purpose.  He falls for the girlfriend of a [horrid] guy whose body he occupies for a day and then ends up maintaining a relationship with her–his/her first ever–though each day s/he is in a new body. S/he sees the stress she deals with and the broken, hurtful relationship she is in.  When s/he unexpectedly wakes up in her body one day, he decides to try to give her the gift of peace in solitude and goes for a long hike.  The description he uses is amazing:

I’ve decided to give Rhiannon the satisfaction of being fully alone.  Not the lethargy of lying on the couch or the dull monotony of drifting off in math class.  Not the midnight wandering in a sleeping house or the pain of being left in a room after the door has been slameed shut.  This alone is not a variation of any of those.  This alone is its own being.  Feeling the body, but not using it to sidetrack the mind.  Moving with purpose, but not in a rush. Conversing not with the person next to you, but with all of the elements.  Sweating and aching and climbing and making sure not to fall, not to get too lost, but lost enough…When no one else is around, we open ourselves to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer (197-198).

I meet monthly with some friends and we talk about the creative pursuits in our lives and what we are learning about ourselves in the process.  It has become a treasured time for me.  My November wasn’t as creative as I planned: I made some substitutions for painting and calligraphy in the name of stress and exhaustion and travel, which at the time seemed justifiable.  I realized, though, that my substitutions weren’t the same, even though I was technically “doing nothing.” I realized once again that I need to spend intentional time opening myself “to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer”–whether that enormity is staring at sky behind the branches of newly leafless trees, breathing in the scent of my Christmas tree, or taking out my paints and ink to let go and create.

Here’s to a beautiful winter season filled with beauty amidst the darkness.

(And here are some other winter thoughts in case you, too, struggle with the fact the sun goes down at 4:30, or just need some context and/or hope from someone who is often winter-hopeless).

Brene Brown, game changer.

I first heard of Brene Brown last winter when my friend Lindsay told me I had to watch her TED talk called “The Power of Vulnerability.” It was a game changer for my emotional health, y’all.  Then Lindsay and I decided we would both read her book The Gifts of Imperfection and it was the perfect follow up for helping me process through what it means to live with meaning and purpose and without anxiety.  Reading the book and reflecting on Brown’s research and how it related to my life has been an incredibly powerful experience.  I’ve slowly and reflectively read this book over the past five months or so. This post is a little vulnerable, but I think Brene Brown would be in favor of me sharing and owning these pieces of my story.

My core spiritual beliefs (grace, love, forgiveness, stillness) have remained much the same over the years, but there came a time when I had to face the fact that from every angle I was hearing: strong people of faith ________.  As a high achieving people pleaser, for many years I ran without stopping in my volunteer work, my actual work, and in the commitments I made in my free time.  Sometimes despite hearing an overarching message of grace and love, I felt as though I was constantly not measuring up to what I was “supposed” to be doing, which was difficult for a perfectionist (though now I consider myself a recovering one) and felt as though I had to be apologetic for my introverted nature.  I’ve taken the past few years to redefine what a spiritual life looks like for me and to (finally) learn to be ok with the fact that it does need to look like anyone else’s.

A lot of authors have mentored me through this journey: Mother Theresa with Come Be My Light, Anne Lamott with Traveling Mercies and Bird by Bird, Joan Didion with The Year of Magical Thinking, Susan Cain with Quiet, Colum McCann with Let the Great World Spin, Eric Metaxes with Bonhoeffer, and of course the poetry and music of Over the Rhine.  What I appreciate about Brene Brown is that her book seemed to pull together all of these literary influences and helped me to redefine and find freedom in what spirituality looks like for me.

In the journey of trying to define what my spiritual life looks like now, it honestly can be easy to simply not think about it, thus avoiding existential dilemmas.  But, the anxiety that so easily creeps in reminded me that being grounded and intentional is life giving and I noticed that not having an intentional grounding in faith, I became less hopeful in general, a bit cranky, and I forgot to look for beauty.  Brown’s definition of spirituality piqued my interest because I was (still am) so tired of the minutia of Christian theology:  “By spirituality, I’m not talking about religion or theology, but I am talking about a shared and deeply held belief.  Here’s how I define spirituality: Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in compassion.  Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives” (64).

When she wrote “It’s not about denominations or dogma. Practicing spirituality is what brings healing and creates resilience. For me, spirituality is about connecting with God, and I do that most often through nature, community, and music.  We all have to define spirituality in a way that inspires us,”(74)  I was reminded of the life nature gives me and how washing dishes or walking with music centers me, and how dinner with my husband and great friends grounds and connects me.

One of the messages I have struggled with as a Christian is that “everything happens for a reason,” which I simply cannot buy into no matter how many scripture based conversations I have.  This felt really isolating, especially in the early days of this journey.  I have landed in a place of confidence and rest with this issue and others, and reading Brown’s book helped give greater clarity to me: “At first I thought faith meant ‘there’s a reason for everything.’  I personally struggled with that because I’m not comfortable with using God or faith or spirituality to explain tragedy…Here’s how I define faith based on research interviews: Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of certainty” (90).  Faith as a beautiful mystery has been one of the most healing perspectives I’ve run across.

To close, one of my favorite parts of the book was when Brown discussed the fact that we can change our neurological pathways, something one of my old pastors used to talk about, too.  It is possible to physiologically change our patterns of thinking (google neuroplasticity).  I’m now living in a way where I am trying to incorporate rhythms into my life that help me feel grounded, connected, grateful, and covered in grace.  This is happening for me through reading, taking time to be creative (watercolor and calligraphy lately), cooking, looking for beauty, and  practicing stillness.  It looks different, but feels beautiful.

The Age of Miracles & maintaining a sense of self

Months ago I saw the book The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walkder and added it to books I wanted to read, namely because it sounded like a good next step for my 8th graders who had read every futuristic, dystopian novel in the young adult section and were ready for an adult level book.  I ran into it the while browsing in the digital books collection of the Brooklyn Public Library and decided it should be my first library ebook.

The premise of the story is that one seemingly typical morning, people wake up to a news story that states the rotation of the earth has shifted and minutes have been added onto the day.  This continues and throws the entire world into a frenzy as the governments decide to remain on 24 hour clock-time which, as the days grow longer, can mean the waking “day” is completely in the dark and the sun is shining brightly while people are sleeping at “night.”  Of course there are people who decide to rebel and let their circadian rhythms readjust, but soon the days become 48 hours long.  Some people become afflicted with sickness, tides are shifted way off and coasts flood, the magnetic field is damaged and the sun’s rays become so dangerous that people do not walk into the sun anymore.

What I kept thinking about was that even though there were life changing and life threatening conflicts, people needed to maintain a sense of self in the face of it all–and that may be what enables them to face the conflicts with courage. This made me start thinking about when everything in life feels like it is being thrown off–when the earth’s rotation in this story is like a metaphor for our lives–how do we cope?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of taking the time to do the things that are good for my soul–even if that means not finishing everything on my to do list.  Or even if it means deciding to paint or bake instead of sitting in front of another crime show–which feels relaxing for the moment, but doesn’t impact my sense of well being in the long run.

What was devastating in the book was when the government decided to make a time capsule of sorts so that if civilization were destroyed, people of the future would have an understanding of the age.  Inside the capsule, though, was a disc that contained information about how civilization worked: the internet, government systems, medical advances.  Our narrator, who is telling the story from her mid twenties about her 12 year old self said: “Not mentioned on the disc was the smell of cut grass in high summer, the taste of oranges on our lips, the way sand felt beneath our bare feet, or our definitions of love and friendship, our worries and our dreams, our mercies and our kindnesses and our lies,” (267).  These are the things of actual life.  The things that she shares throughout the length of the book itself.  And that, is a beautiful and clever idea from the author: it is the stuff of stories that make life worth living.  (It reminded me a lot of this book, which I also wrote about here.)

And so, I’ve tried to be in pursuit of these things that remind me of the goodness of life; the things that store up strength for later and can provide true comfort.  For me, that has meant art and cooking real meals and going for runs in Prospect Park to soak in the season.  Having these rhythms in place keeps me grounded when life seems to throw everything else off.  And that in and of itself, constitutes a miracle.