Category Archives: hope

The Great Gatsby and how the city seen from the Queensboro Bridge changed everything

Every year I have students join a book club with me (I’ve written about World War Two and Harry Potter) and this year I added The Great Gatsby to the list of choices for students who are ready to jump into some more classic, adult literature.  I studied The Great Gatsby in high school, college and graduate school, but those lenses into the story don’t seem to quite fit for 8th grade.  Luckily I still have time to think about that, but I also got stuck figuring out how to write about it here: this is not a book review or a literary essay blog, so I went back to my roots and thought about how the story speaks into life at this moment, and at this moment I am thinking about the city.  My city.  New York.

Most New Yorkers with a literary slant in their lives know all the classic lines about where we live, and Fitzgerald’s description is one of the best: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and all the beauty in the world,” (73).

This is the New York I like to think about the most: the one that still feels magical 9 years later, the one that offers up perfect autumn dinners eaten at the counter and walks into bookstores on the corner and cafe tables on the sidewalk and life swirling around.  The one that has perfect theaters for rainy Sunday matinees that follow a long brunch at a South African restaurant.

And yet. There is also “…a valley of ashes–a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air,” (27).

This is the New York that I also think about.  I can be literal and think about the insane amount of trash that we proffer to the sidewalks or the hours lost waiting on a train that has been rerouted for the weekend.  I can calculate the money I have spent in rent over the years or figure out how many pounds of groceries I have carried over x amount of miles.  I weigh these things often these days. Or, more heavily, I can think about the students who walk into city schools coming from families who don’t value education and don’t see their own worth and a system that doesn’t know how to help.  I can think about the men and women who sleep on the streets and the paralyzing feeling of not being able to help as I walk by with my smart phone in hand.

I dream a lot about a little house with a fire place on a little piece of land, where life could be quiet and where I could see the sunset every day.  And that may happen still.  But.  Living in a place filled with both beauty and ashes has changed the way I read the world around me–and I don’t think I could ever be the same, or shake the feeling that no matter how cozy my life is, whether that is reading my book while homemade tomato sauce is simmering on my stove in my studio apartment or some future multi-room home in my future, there are ashes scattered around me–and that I should never stop looking for ways to help beauty and life to grow among and out of them.

the art and psychology of mixed tapes and belonging.

I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower at the end of college.  It is written as a series of letters to an unknown recipient from a Charlie, a sophomore in high school.  He is the “wallflower” mentioned in the title, whose new friend claims “You see things.  You keeps quiet about them. And you understand.” Charlie’s earnest voice gives names and narrative to the essence of late adolescence. 

I loved it, but didn’t connect with the characters the way high school readers did because I felt like I was a life-stage ahead of them…the characters were in the act of figuring out who they were and I felt like I was already there.  Of course, those are the kinds of cringe-inducing, arrogant things that 22 year olds think.  Reading it now, ten years later, I found myself relating to Charlie’s desire to be connected to the world around him and belong to something greater.  

He collects songs and makes mixed tapes.  He collects books.  He collects moments with his writing.  And he curates them in an attempt to make sense of existence.

I hope it’s the kind of second side that he can listen to whenever he drives alone and feel like he belongs to something whenever he’s sad.  I hope it can be that for him.” 

“I had an amazing feeling when I finally held up the tape in my hand.  I just thought to myself that in the palm of my hand, there was this one tape that had all of these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness.  Right there in my hand. And I thought about how many people have loved these songs. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs.  And how much those songs really mean.” 

“And all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. and that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing ‘unity.” 

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.














I’ve been thinking about what my current mixed tape would be (and what would I call it, and how would I design the cover) and which books I would pull off my shelf and hand to the world in an attempt to explain who I am? What stories do I need to write down? 


Because I think there is still, beyond the angst of the teenage years, the collecting and gathering of things that are beautiful and throwing them out into the world.  There is still the hope that someone will catch them and understand the way life’s vignettes of beauty and pain have woven together an existence.  I have come to realize that my 22 year old self was the sophomoric one: the searching and desire to be known and to belong never really goes away.  And though as I’ve gotten older and have some truths to stand on, the mysteries seem to just get wider and taller–and that is when I need my songs and books and stories for some hope along the way.  And, perhaps, a fall adventure to frolic and feel infinite.  At almost 32. And maybe these imagined tapes and anthologies are as much for understanding myself as asking the world to understand me.    

On beauty and rebuilding from brokenness.

This has been a summer of devouring books.  All I want to do is sit and read.  The other morning I walked to get some breakfast and a coffee and took it up to Prospect Park with about half of Simon Van Booy’s Everything Beautiful Began After.  I thought that I would stay for a half hour or so, but I got so lost that I remained on my shady bench for almost two hours and finished the book.  It left me a bit speechless and heartbroken, so I was glad to have been in the park and have a walk home to begin to process.

I did some research, as I usually do, on Van Booy when I finished the book and learned that he has dealt with tremendous loss in his life prior to publishing this story, which made what the characters went through feel more weighty to me.  This interview also provided some sweet insight into Van Booy as a person and I was able to understand his style of writing a bit more.  

The story begins with a prologue from the voice of a ten year old girl, simple and poetic; she is a newcomer to thinking about life.  She hopes to hear her parents’ love story at dinner and the prologue ends with: “All she knows is that someone fell, and that everything beautiful began after,” (7).  Then the story begins and the reader is left not knowing which characters are the parents to this child.

The book is set in Athens and the three main characters all went there in an attempt to escape not necessarily their lives, but the pain they have long carried with them.  Rebecca has left her job as a flight attendant to pursue painting.  George is there to study ancient languages.  Henry is there as a archaeologist.  The friendship and love that follows is beautiful and unexpected.  Then the story is wrought with tragedy, in the city of ancient Greek tragedy.  It is clear that this is a story not just about these characters, but about the coping and living with brokenness that people have done for all of time.  The second half follows how the characters try to pick up the pieces:

“A man on an upside-down bucket is selling small tubes of glue from a folding table.  On the table are things glued together.  He doesn’t know where the museum is but asks if anything you have is broken.  ‘Everything,’ you say in Greek.  He puts a tube of glue in your hands.  You hold out a few coins, but he pushes them away,” (293).  
Slowly, the characters, like the city they find themselves in, begin to rebuild.  None of them is able to forget and each of them is forever changed and they attempt to find the balance of remembering the beauty of what was and continuing to look for beauty in a world that is capable of crumbling.  This always resonates with me and I’ve written about it quite a bit.  Every conversation I have with friends in the midst of heartbreak, or even just in talking about what the definition of good living, is grounded in paying attention to the small, simple pieces of beauty in the world, past or present, which is why I loved the metaphor of what Henry became: “He is a curator. He reconstructs scenes from the past to illustrate their beauty and significance.”  He didn’t try to completely forget the moments of beauty from his past, but rather recognize their worth. “He is enchanted by the beauty of small things: hot coffee, wind through an open window, the tapping of rain, a passing bicycle, the desolation of snow on a winter’s day,” (401). That is how I want to live. 

The end of the book comes back to the girl from the prologue and I found myself thinking about how in her story, everything beautiful began after people born before her experienced great pain.  That switch in perspective is beautiful in and of itself.

in the company of those who struggle.

I came across Mary Karr’s book Lit after I read an article in New York Magazine about her, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen.  I had read all of the authors except for her and sought out to get a copy of The Liars Club.  Then I found Lit, an incredibly written memoir based in Karr’s alcohol abuse, the dissolution of her marriage and recovery, on a brownstone’s stoop and decided that would work.   I later found out that a few friends of mine had recently read and loved it, so I moved it to the top of my “to read” stack.
{I’ve learned that sometimes I love to share the story of how I stumbled upon a story.  Thanks for indulging me.}
There are a few parts from Lit that I haven’t stopped thinking about. One was that her recovery and redemption came in the company of those who struggled, too.  Karr found herself in AA with a mix of every kind of person imaginable, none of whom she would have sought out on her own.  The friends she made there were from across the social spectrum, people whose paths would have never crossed otherwise. And yet, they became a lifeline for one another because they deeply understood that struggle is best endured together. No one lives immune to hurt–and that means that each of us has something in common with every person we meet.  
I would not normally call myself a cynic, but in the winter it happens from time to time. For some reason that was the space my mind was inhabiting in the week I was reading this book: not in response to the book, but just in response to life.  I often get frustrated at the instagram-portrayed life.  Don’t get me wrong, I think small moments of life’s poetry are worth sharing, but sometimes it is easy to start thinking that everyone around has a perfectly curated life.  I know this theory is false.  Or, I start soaking in cynicism about the self promotion social media induces.   I’ve found that when I remember that I am always in (and a part of) the company of those who struggle, my heart seems to grow in compassion.  
I am always trying to teach my students that books make us better people because we learn to empathize with almost any character once we understand the ins and outs of his or her story.  Sometimes the teacher needs to remember this, too. 
 I also didn’t realize just how much spirituality was a part of Karr’s journey, and when added to a life rich in real community, a portrait of how beautiful–and simple–life can be rose before me. 
Therapy rescued me in my twenties by taking me inward, leaching off pockets of poison in my head left over from the past.  But the spiritual lens–even just the nightly gratitude list and going over each day’s actions–is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved,” (304).
I really can’t add much to her words, except that by allowing herself to consider, and ultimately accept, the way faith, not religious duty, could change a life, her life and mental landscape began to change.  Sometimes I forget this–and reading Karr’s story became one of the brightest reminders of my winter–and my own cold weather induced cynicism and anger has begun to slip away.  

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.