Category Archives: identity

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.

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.

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.

Introversion: not a bad word! Or, reflections after reading "Quiet" by Susan Cain

{cartoon via Out Came the Sun; originally
by Eat Up What’s Good For You}

All throughout school, group projects exhausted me.  Besides being kind of type A and kind of smart, therefore often doing most of the work, I always felt like I would have learned more and created better work if I could just do it all myself.  Culture and even my educational studies have told me that is a wrong way to think, though. Collaboration is key to a good learning experience! Because I believe in community and giving everyone a voice, I continued on–as a student and as a teacher.

I remember a conversation a few years ago where one of my friends explained how his company was catering to its different personality types: extroverts were energized in brainstorming sessions with other people while introverts were energized by being given the time to independently work, then share their ideas, then brainstorm together.  I remember thinking: if only my teachers understood this! Everything could have been different!   For years I have joked about my sometimes-anti-social behavior (I love to have either Friday or Saturday night to myself and if someone cancels plans I’m sad to not see whoever I was meeting, but relish the “stolen” alone time), but then my understanding grew to know that extroverts are literally energized by being around people and introverts are energized by time alone.

All of this makes so much sense to my introverted–yet very social self–as I look back on my personal history.  In college I lived in a 4 bedroom house with 7 girls and was involved in a very people-centered mentoring program where apparently everyone thought I was an extrovert because of all the large and small group leading I did.  However, what kept me sane all those years was the long drive back to campus in my car, listening to music.  The down side was that I think I was much too quiet in my classes as a result.

One of my friends who is also a teacher and I were talking recently about what it means to be an introvert and a teacher of 90-120 students each day–and how long it took for us to realize that being involved in numerous groups outside of the school day wasn’t life-giving to us in the way it was to people who had less social jobs.  Rather, it was draining.  Period.  But a level of guilt has always accompanied me in that: I grew up thinking that I always needed to be as active and involved in possible.

A few of my kindred spirit-educator friends and I have had multiple conversations about being introverted–and our sometimes-tendency to drop back or stay home or hopelessly try to make ourselves be a bit more extroverted.  One of them came across the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain and suggested that we read it together.  I’ve spent the last few weeks laughing out loud about all the things she explained about my personality type that I have long thought I needed to try to change.  This book would also be eye opening to extroverts, as well–especially those who manage people at work.  I also laughed when I saw how New York Magazine described this book in their “How to read 31 Self Help Books in Four Minutes” article: “a feel-good book for the silent type.”  New York Mag, I love you, but you misunderstand introversion just like the rest of them.  Sigh. Cain unpacks the idea that we live in a culture that celebrates the “extrovert ideal,” and her anecdotes and research are fascinating.  I would completely recommend this book to introverts in order to better understand yourself, or extroverts, to better understand the introverts in your life.  She analyzes “mixed” marriages, work collaboration and even how to set up space in a place of business.

So.  This year I’ve decided to fully embrace my introverted personality.  I’m pretty interested in thinking about my teaching practice, my religious practice, and my own emotional and physical well being in light of what I’ve learned in this book.  I did not learn to hibernate or to not stretch myself in ways that may seem painful, but rather than fighting up against my natural temperament, I want to see what happens when I use my knowledge of it to live better.

Also, as a side note, and an encouragement to my other introverts out there, Cain shared a number of life changing works have come from introverts including Harry Potter.  So there’s that.

Still Alice.

I often use my mom’s shelves as a library and picked up a book over the summer to read before Thanksgiving (the Janet Robbins library has longer borrowing periods than your neighborhood library). Her book club read Still Alice by Lisa Genova last year, a story of a Harvard psychology professor in her early 50s who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.   I almost missed my return date, though, because I couldn’t bring myself to read it, knowing that it would be a heavy and emotional read.

I didn’t find the book especially well written, but I did find it to be the kind of book that gave me insight into a disease that I would never get reading an article about it.  The story is told from Alice’s point of view and her frustrations become my own.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity–and how we define ourselves and how that changes over time–but mostly in the context of the identities that we can choose for ourselves.  New ways of thinking we embrace, career moves, family life, cities we attach ourselves to.  Of course, some of the new identities are thrust upon us from life experiences we didn’t plan or ask for, but over time learn to tuck into how we see ourselves and relate to the world around us.

The layer this book added to my thought life was when all the ways that Alice had defined herself began to fade–ever more intensely–as her disease progressed.  She pondered the question herself in a “last lecture” sort of scene towards the end of the book:

“I often fear tomorrow.  What if I wake up and don’t know who my husband it? What if I don’t know where I am or recognize myself in the mirrow? When will I no longer be me? Is the part of my brain that’s responsible for my unique ‘me-ness’ vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins, and defective molecules of DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? I believe it is.”

I guess that reading this book reaffirmed my belief that identity comes from something deeper than a profession or a pastime.  I had a fleeting second of the fear of sounding trite writing that.  But it is also beautifully simple, so.