I 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.