Category Archives: hope

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.

 

 

Once again, my reading reminds me to walk away from my to-do list.

{cover design by Anna Bauer}

My reading life has been consumed with graduate school.  Lately I’ve been studying Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan,  A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence by Carmen Farina (New York City’s new chancellor) and Laura Scott, countless articles on gifted education, and the middle grades novel Al Capone Does My Shirts to study narrative progression with a colleague.  Add into the mix a (wonderful) trip out of town and a Saturday conference, and it makes sense that my writing about reading–and just fiction reading–hasn’t been happening at a quick pace.

I finished The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht a few weeks ago.  I usually like to read reviews after I finished the book, but with this one and the unfocused reading life I’ve had lately, I actually wish I read this New York Times Book Review before I read it, so I could have done some better critical thinking about the beautiful work Obrecht did throughout the story.  The overarching narrative is about a young woman living in a vague post-war setting in the Balkans who is working to finish her medical training.  On her way to deliver medical aid to a small town, she learns her grandfather just died.  When she goes to pick up his belongings from where he died, Obrecht interweaves stories of her grandfather’s youth, which are essentially tales of superstitious new myths.

This post has been sitting in draft form for a couple weeks as I’ve frantically tried to grade papers, read articles, write papers, create presentations.  The weather outside remained cold and my days at work felt frantic preparing my students for the state test.  Sitting down to finish this post again, I felt like I had nothing to say.  But then I started thinking about the crux of the story for me: when one of the characters tells the narrator: “We’re all entitled to our superstitions,” (272).  At the moment, the narrator is the only one in the story who didn’t have some kind of stake in the unexplainable.  She armed herself with medical know-how and pragmatism–and until this moment in the story, her relationship with myth and superstitions was cynical at best.  By the novel’s end, she doesn’t become a believer in magic, per se, but she does not remain the same.

I’ve been so task-oriented, busy, and mad about the weather that I’ve forgotten to remember the existence of magic in the world.  My mental respites have been thinking about a future that doesn’t yet belong to me: one where I have some land and a garden, woods to walk in, seasonal rhythms that don’t involve honking cars or paved streets.  Of course, hoping for this future isn’t necessarily bad, but I do think it is existentially dangerous to live without a touch of superstition, or rather, an awareness of the beautiful and mysterious.

My hope is that this weekend, amidst the work, I would remember some stories and revel in what I can’t explain.  (And I wish I could reread The Tiger’s outside of my task oriented life, on a blanket in the park.  You should read it that way.)

Help. Thanks. Wow.

In following with the month of November and trying to lead a life where its richness and depth trumps my to-do lists, and in the same vein as pursuing a life that described in this post about Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection, I’ve been trying to keep a journal for a few minutes each morning for what I am thankful for: the small things like miniature pumpkins and the big ones like my family alike.  

This morning I am thankful for Anne Lamott and also her short book on prayer: Help, Thanks, Wow.  I first read Anne Lamott ten years ago when we had to read her book about writing Bird by Bird for a class.  Randomly afterward I realized I had a handful of friends who were really into her book Travelling Mercies, which is about her faith and was such a refreshing read.  I’m thankful for a writer who can mentor me through a season of wanting to let go of my anxiety and frantic pace.

There are three sections, each dedicated to a word in the title, and she walks the reader through admitting we don’t know what to do, the art of gratitude, and the way that wonder can change us and the way we see the world.  I could subtitle this book “breathing deep through all the things,” because she describes how these prayer rhythms anchor her as a person able to face life with courage.  It reminded me what a gift centeredness can be.

So I just want to share two excerpts and throw them out into the universe in the hope that someone will connect with them as well, and feel just a little bit more full today:

Without revelation and reframing, life can seem like an endless desert of danger with scratchy sand in your shoes, and yet if we remember or are reminded to pay attention, we find so many sources of hidden water (page 53).  

We’re individuals in time and space who are gravely lost, and then miraculously, in art, found…In paintings, music, poetry, architecture, we feel the elusive energy that moves through us and the air and teh ground all the time, that usually disperses and turns chaotic in our busy-ness and distractedness and moodiness.  Artists channel it, corral it, make it visible to the rest of us.  The best works of art are semaphores of our experience, signaling what we didn’t know was true but do now (page 82).

Feeling September-ish. Or, how Over the Rhine reinvigorated my life last weekend.

This post switched directions a number of times as I wrote it this morning.  There are just a lot of big ideas swirling in my brain this week about music and art and words.  The short version is that music and lyrics breathe life into us.  If you want to take the long way around, read on.

Perfection, to me, often involves traveling with the right kind of music.  In college, I drove on State Route 73 in southwest Ohio at least three times a week.  Most of the time it was early evening when the light softens or at night–and out there you can see so many stars because Oxford, Ohio is surrounded by farmland.  Since I was in Oxford from September-May, these drives often were accompanied by open windows and the heat on my feet.  And of course, the right kind of playlist.  My car became a sanctuary of sorts that allowed me to have time and space to think by myself and my music–the 5 inch binder of CD options–was what spoke to me.  I’m realizing looking back just how important those moments of listening to music and lyrics was to my mental and emotional health.  Those were the days when music like Over The Rhine and Ryan Adams and Patty Griffin were brand new to me.  I heard Bela Fleck’s Big Country for the first time.  The Dixie Chicks threw some attitude into my country music and Nickel Creek pulled me into bluegrass.

Since moving to New York ten years ago, my rhythms with music have changed considerably, mostly because one can’t take the subway and look out on farmland at the same time.  Ten falls ago I walked with my tea to the Hudson River at Riverside Park seeking healing from homesickness and took the music that felt like home, namely the OTR’s Ohio album.  When I moved downtown my river walks and runs changed me along with Iron and Wine and Sufjan Stevens and of course Drunkard’s Prayer.  When I moved to Brooklyn, I commuted by foot and rotated The Head and the Heart, Fleet Foxes, Alicia Keys, Miranda Lambert through the streets of my neighborhood, along with a heavy dose of The Long Surrender.

Last March I moved out of the apartment I lived in by myself into one a stone’s throw from work. It took me five months to realize that music wasn’t playing in the way it once was.  Luckily, this realization came right before a new school year started, and therefore is helping to set the tone for this new season of my life.  September is essentially my new years, after all.  I was lucky enough to escape to Cape Cod during the four days before school started and poetically, Over the Rhine just released their latest album. I knew that to appreciate it fully I needed to hear it not just while doing dishes in my apartment, but away from the city.  I had just read an article about their writing process and learned that my life-line song on their last album was inspired by one of my favorite poets, Adam Zagajewski.  I also read how one of the new songs was inspired by Anne Lamott.  It all seemed too perfect a way to start a new year of teaching reading and writing–and to be reflective and writerly along the way.

So, I was with kindred music listeners.   We put it on as soon as we got past anything that felt like city life, and my ability to breathe deeply coincided with Karin Berquist’s voice and Linford Detweiler’s piano and the rapid increase in trees outside my window.  That was when I was reminded of driving on 73 in my home state–where the music and the lyrics hit you right where they need to and your lungs can fill with air again.

So all weekend, on near empty beaches, with coffee and Bailey’s, and in a hooded sweatshirt I listened to Meet Me At the Edge of the World and felt whole and at home.

Poetic Connection: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

It is rare to find an author who sees people the way that you do and in an age where it seems like so many modern authors are jaded and whose characters are disgruntled, bored, angry adults, reading Van Booy’s work is a breath of fresh air.  His prose is like poetry and it is impossible for me to not get caught up in them.  My favorite book of last summer was Everything Beautiful Began After and then I immediately sought out his collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love.  While I was browsing at my local book store, surprisingly open on the 4th of July, I saw on the front table that he had a new book out and I couldn’t help myself even though I have a large stack of books to read on my nightstand already.

As I meet his characters, they are still open to the possibility of beauty and hope, even if it has felt long vanished from their lives.  And this I believe is what a lot of today’s modern characters–and people, of course–are in desperate need of:  tiny moments that can begin to rewire the joy that has seeped out of living.

The Illusion of Separateness opens with a quote from monk Thich Nhat Hanh: We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.  The concept that Van Booy carries throughout his story is that the feeling of separateness is an illusion.  I wonder about the original context of the quote and what the “here” is meant to convey.  It could be on earth.  It could mean in this moment.  Or it could mean in an intentional place–literal or psychological–a readiness to face where life has taken us.  And perhaps it is in the journey of awakening we realize it is often those tiny moments of beauty and longing that connect us to those around us, whether we realize it or not.  In the book, that is part of the beautiful mystery.  The reader, by the end, is able to see the connections between the vignettes of characters presented to us from 1939 to 2010, from England to the East coast of the United States, but not all of the characters see the connections that draw them together–but–they each are able to find a bit of peace as they begin to see themselves in the larger context of humanity:

We all have different lives, Martin believes–but in the end probably feel the same things, and regret the fear we thought might somehow sustain us (16-17).

In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment–we are all defined by something we can’t change (82).

Everyone was searching, he thought–trying to unravel the knot of their lives (152).

I’m not sure when life becomes that knot–but once we realize that nearly everyone feels it, all of a sudden just that knowledge lifts some of the separateness.  Not just empathy but community is born out of the shared brokenness–but through it has the ability to make life beautiful and poetic.
And of course, it brings the reader back to what I probably write about too much on here: why we need to read literature to understand humanity–and let our understanding of characters help us to look for the lives behind the faces we pass each day.

One of my favorite parts of the book (beyond the achingly beautiful character sketches) was that the characters took care of each other–often as strangers.  Be it with a bag of tomatoes or shelter in a war field.  Just like all of my favorite books do, this one makes me want to look for more poetry and hope in the cracks and corners of my world.