Category Archives: honesty

Fates and Furies and being known.

9781594634475_custom-a1c60d0db7c4d3d9fce99ec338b463c8ea95ca03-s400-c85“Mathilde’s heart was a bitter one, vengeful and quick. [True.]  Mathilde’s heart was a kindly one. [True.]” (page 380)

0ne of the lessons I’ve been working on teaching my students is that readers look for and explore nuance. It’s easy for them (and the rest of us!) to make quick judgements of characters (and people!) with generalized language: she’s a good person, he’s a bad person, etc. I’m trying to get them to hold multiple ideas about a character in their mind at once, to consider multiple causes of behaviors, to consider other perspectives.

I got to put this concept to work while reading Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which was marketed as a book about marriage and tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde who met and married during the final weeks of college. Divided into two parts, Fates focuses on Lotto’s story and Furies on Mathilde’s; crossing over from one to the next reveals new details and backstories to what happened in the first half. After discussing with my book club, we thought that a better description would be it’s a story of a marriage, but it is more a story about the degree to which we allow ourselves to be known, and to which we pursue truly knowing those closest to us.

The women in my book club all came from the perspective that marriage (and best friendship) is a place where we wanted to be truly known and truly loved, though we concluded that it’s impossible to know a person completely. What made this book so interesting was that Lotto and Mathilde were looking for very different things in their marriage: Lotto needed a muse and someone to take care of him; Mathilde needed security. Neither of them seemed to want to be fully known, or somehow didn’t consider it as an option.

One of the more interesting lines in the book for me was “He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her,” (page 331). This line was narrated not by Lotto, but by an unnamed narrator who occasionally commented on the events in the story, which is significant because it shows that Lotto himself wasn’t cognizant of how much he didn’t know about her. Mathilde, however, was keenly aware.

The other fascinating part of the story is the thread Groff spins through that most other people were constantly looking at Lotto and Mathilde from the outside and thinking it was the epitome of the best kind of marriage. And perhaps for the intents and purposes of Lotto and Mathilde, it was, but there was another moment I thought really compelling that adds a layer to consider:

During a Christmas that was emotionally wrought for the characters, Groff spent a significant number of pages writing an account that a stranger passing by on the street saw through the window “a circle of singing people bathed in the clean white light from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him; it merged with him even as he came home to his own children…All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, because the very idea of what happiness should look like,” (page 75). Mathilde and Lotto didn’t truly know one another, their friends didn’t truly know them, and this scene extends the idea that we so easily misinterpret the world around us. It’s a lonely idea. (And it got metacognitive when we, as readers, realized the misinterpretations we made about Mathilde before we knew her story that came in the second half of the book.)

What I walked away from book club thinking the most about was how one of my friends called their relationship the opposite of what Brene Brown writes about in her books–that opening ourselves to vulnerability is what allows us to live wholeheartedly. A lot of our conversation circled around the compassion for the characters we felt as we learned more about them, and the frustration and sadness we had for them as we watched them keep an arm’s length–which may feel safer and more secure, but in the long run ends in loneliness.

So–is this book worth the hype? I think so. The more I think about it the more I want to discuss it and what it says about relationships and about gender. I didn’t get into it here and don’t want to spoil some plot lines, but learned that both Lotto and Mathilde were crafted to combat some gender stereotyping in literature, which is always interesting food for thought.

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.

To be heartbroken and staggering. In the best of ways.

I am trying to wrap my head around “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” It is a sad story. Dave Eggers writes what I think can be called a memoir, about the death of his mother and father and raising his 8 year old brother, all while in his early twenties. My thoughts are incomplete, and in order to complete them, or at least progress, I have to write. So. First, he brilliantly and honestly chronicles his thoughts into a piece of art:

“They are scared. They are jealous. We are pathetic. We are stars. We are either sad and sickly or we are glamorous and new. We walk in and the choices race through my head. Sad and sickly? Or glamorous and new? Sad/sickly or glamorous/new? Sad/sickly? Glamorous/new? We are unusual and tragic and alive.” (p. 96)

“How lame this is, how small, terrible. Or maybe it is beautiful. I can’t decide if what I am doing is beautiful and noble and right, or small and disgusting. I want to be doing something beautiful, but am afraid that this is too small, too small, that this gesture, this end is too small…Or beautiful and loving and glorious! Yes, beautiful and loving and glorious!…I know what I am doing now, that I am doing something both beautiful and gruesome because I am destroying its beauty by knowing that it might be beautiful, know that if I know I am doing something beautiful, that it’s no longer beautiful…and worse, knowing that I will very soon be documenting it, that in my pocket is a tape recorder brought for just that purpose–that all this makes this act of potential beauty somehow gruesome. I am a monster.” (p.399)

It is so rare to come across someone who is willing to actually spell out these inconsistencies within himself in an honest way. I feel like most of us have the gruesome part buried somewhere, scared to admit to it beyond the space of our own mind: we keep our faults and secrets buried way beneath the cranium, letting no one know what exists there, and not wanting to admit it even to ourselves. I admire his brutal honesty.

As for myself, despite my better knowledge, sometimes I pretend that it’s possible to really have my act together in every way: that it’s possible to live at all times filled with passion, energy, reflection, noble priorities, etc. etc. etc. This is one of the most exhausting myths. Something that my pastor repeats quite often the hope that Christ offers: “you are more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe, yet you are more accepted and loved than you ever dared hope.” This is the beauty of the gospel, and I’m pretty sure the only reason why I’m still sane. Not that I remember it all the time (as long as we’re on the honesty kick), but the moments that I am feeling most monstrous, I realize that I don’t have to drown in it or be devoured by it.

Second, what I think is most interesting, and important, is thinking through how we are dealing with the monstrous parts of ourselves if we are forgetting the loved and accepted part.

Eggers and his friends started a satirical magazine, which is birthed from: “We need to change him. Inspire him. Him, everyone. Get everyone together. All these people. No more waiting…It’s criminal to pause. To wallow. To complain. We have to be hapy. ..We must do extraordinary things. We have to…A collective. A movement. An army. All inclusive. Raceless. Genderless. Youth. Strength. Potential…” (p. 148). They start the magazine and have some mild success and many good times, but soon enough it becomes: “ever more depressing, routine, improved only by the occasional near death experience…I am at my desk, working on a spread debunking races, one in a long line of contrarian articles pointing out the falsity of most things the world believes in, holds dear. We ahve debunked a version of the Bible written for black kids. We ahve debunked the student loan program. We debunk the idea of college in general, and work in general, and marriage, and makeup, and the Grateful Dead–it is our job to point out all this artifice, everywhere…” (p. 304)

This is quite possibly the most depressing description I have ever read. To think nothing as sacred. To think of everything as deception. Life becomes satire. Nothing is real or true.

Clearly, this is not to say that I don’t take part in (or at least watch others and laugh) commenting on the ridiculous aspects of our culture (much to the thanks of my brother and the Simpsons/Southpark episodes he makes me watch everytime I see him). But I’m becoming more convinced that without the knowledge that we are imperfect and loved, the result is hollow, passionless living…which is the opposite of what everyone was striving for to begin with.

I’m not sure if this makes any sense at all. But. We need to not hold everything at arm’s length to prevent injury to body or soul. I just think that there is so much goodness and truth out there that we miss out on. That is heartbreaking. I can only hope that it causes me to stagger to the point that I have no other choice but to be honest with myself.