Category Archives: joy

The Gift of Solitude: applicable to all adults, as described in a young adult novel.

If there is one thing I try to share with my students throughout the year, it’s the idea that each one of them has a story: that you can never know someone’s story just by looking at them, that it is one of life’s greatest gifts to get to hear other people’s stories, and that it is a privilege for me to get to know theirs throughout the course of the year.  My hope is that they will take the time to really know one another and build a community of understanding, respect, and kindness.

And then I had a moment where I met a protagonist I wanted every student to know:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: We all want everything to be okay (page 6).

The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common (page 77).

In my experience, desire is desire, love is love.  I have never fallen in love with a gender. I have fallen for individuals.  I know this is hard for people to do, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard, when it’s so obvious (page 142).

A handful of my students were raving about Everyday by David Levithan in our weekly “Friday Favorites” five minute share and after hearing the premise, I knew I wanted to check it out.  The protagonist, A, is essentially a soul (without a gender): s/he wakes up in a new body everyday while maintaining a fully developed sense of self–just no physical body with which to express him/herself.  This is one of the most thought provoking and creative young adult books I’ve ever read.  It touches on so many young adult emotional-development issues, but not in a preachy way: the protagonist authentically brings them up and because his/her life experience is so different than the average human, and based on what I’ve witnessed in my classroom, I think young adult readers will just soak it in.

But I also found a section that spoke into everything I’ve been thinking about lately: maintaining a sense of self, of peace, of purpose.  He falls for the girlfriend of a [horrid] guy whose body he occupies for a day and then ends up maintaining a relationship with her–his/her first ever–though each day s/he is in a new body. S/he sees the stress she deals with and the broken, hurtful relationship she is in.  When s/he unexpectedly wakes up in her body one day, he decides to try to give her the gift of peace in solitude and goes for a long hike.  The description he uses is amazing:

I’ve decided to give Rhiannon the satisfaction of being fully alone.  Not the lethargy of lying on the couch or the dull monotony of drifting off in math class.  Not the midnight wandering in a sleeping house or the pain of being left in a room after the door has been slameed shut.  This alone is not a variation of any of those.  This alone is its own being.  Feeling the body, but not using it to sidetrack the mind.  Moving with purpose, but not in a rush. Conversing not with the person next to you, but with all of the elements.  Sweating and aching and climbing and making sure not to fall, not to get too lost, but lost enough…When no one else is around, we open ourselves to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer (197-198).

I meet monthly with some friends and we talk about the creative pursuits in our lives and what we are learning about ourselves in the process.  It has become a treasured time for me.  My November wasn’t as creative as I planned: I made some substitutions for painting and calligraphy in the name of stress and exhaustion and travel, which at the time seemed justifiable.  I realized, though, that my substitutions weren’t the same, even though I was technically “doing nothing.” I realized once again that I need to spend intentional time opening myself “to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer”–whether that enormity is staring at sky behind the branches of newly leafless trees, breathing in the scent of my Christmas tree, or taking out my paints and ink to let go and create.

Here’s to a beautiful winter season filled with beauty amidst the darkness.

(And here are some other winter thoughts in case you, too, struggle with the fact the sun goes down at 4:30, or just need some context and/or hope from someone who is often winter-hopeless).

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby in one sitting a few weeks ago, as I was left sitting in the wake of my family leaving town.  After suffering a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, he could only blink his left eye.  He composed the book in his head and dictated it by blinking his eye, with the help of Claude Mendibil. Of course, much has been said in the history of words about taking goodness for granted, but the way that Bauby approached his memories without being able to do anything physical about them was astounding–and the very existence of this book–of producing a creative work in his condition is the ultimate story of triumph and the power of art. 

I’m struggling about responding to this book under the umbrella of not taking life for granted, for that feels so trite.  What saves me from this, I hope, is the depth of pain with which he wrote–this book is no “go get ’em, pursue your dreams, you can accomplish anything” story.  It distills the goodness of human existence while enduring physical impossibilities and deep existential struggle.  No matter how shallow my own wrestling seemed in comparison, this memoir made me want to live actively remembering what is real and good and true–a theme that keeps repeating itself to me in recent months.  

Here are three of my favorite excerpts from the book that underline the way that I want to live–and the kinds of things that keep popping up in every meaningful conversation I’ve had in the past month. 

Taking joy in and being thankful for small pleasures, rather than constantly looking forward to the next big item or trip that money can buy.
The delectable moment when I sink into the tub is quickly followed by nostalgia for the protracted immersions that were the joy of my previous life.  Armed with a cup of tea or Scotch, a good book or a pile of newspapers, I would soak for hours, maneuvering the taps with my toes.  Rarely do I feel my condition so cruelly as when I am recalling such pleasures.

Feeling deeply and not allowing busyness or struggle to make me feel numb.
I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much or too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.

Living life with good people.
Other letters simply relate the small events that punctuate the passage of time: roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep. Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, these small gusts of happiness, move me deeply than all the rest.  A couple of lines or eight pages, a Middle Eastern stamp or a suburban postmark…I hoard these letters like treasure.  One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.

It’s not all about the books: How to read the oceans of trees and lakes of mirrors.

So my weekend was more about reading the land, and less about reading a book (although I started rereading “Catcher in the Rye” and laughed out loud at Holden Caulfield). I went backpacking in the Adirondacks for the long weekend with the roommates, are here are a few of the favorite things that I read:

4 kids fully outfitted with mini packs, walking sticks and bandanas walking far enough ahead of their parents to feel completely independent and for their pretending to seem real. I turned around to watch them tackle a huge mound of unmelted snow and was reminded of my own adventuring of the sort…and daydreamed about that and “Swallows and Amazons” (the best kid adventure book other than maybe Narnia) all afternoon.

Keeping my eyes open for bear tracks and imagining stories about what would happen if we saw one (and feeling ready, I might add. if this were grizzly country it would be another story, though.)

The peeling sycamore bark that was scattered all over like paper shavings, as if they had a story they wanted to tell.

The scent of fresh pine. It hits the heart directly.

Watching the light change over a lake; both in the eveningtime and in between rainstorms.

Contemplating a graveyard, as Sarah aptly named it, of trees that lie at the base of a mountain after an avalanche brought them down. Thinking about not having the ability to get up after a fall. Thinking about how the way we view life (from the top of a mountain or the bottom) can impact our vision.

And of course laughing with these favorites:

"From Here You Can Almost See the Sea"

Seriously: (In the background) Firth of Forth (Scottish Gaelic: Linne Foirthe) is the estuary or firth of Scotland’s River Forth, where it flows into the North Sea between Fife to the north, and West Lothian, the City of Edinburgh, and East Lothian to the south. And can I just say how happy it makes me that there are real places with names like “Lothian” and they don’t just belong in books?

Literally: One can almost see the ocean from our terrace with the view of the New York Harbor.

But even more than the literal sea, let me say this:
(and by “this” I mean quoting my dear Clive Staples Lewis)
Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring and which beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

and maybe one more…
“For all images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate. All said, in the last resort: It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?”

That’s all.

The Prequel: What You Need to Know to Get What’s Next (even though I feel like I’ve covered this before)

Now that my title sounds like it was modeled after Sufjan…I recently finished the best book I have read in a long long time. I realize that is a big statement, but seriously, “The God of Small Things” is fantastic, fantastic writing paired with a story that still resonates in me. Arundati Roy is able to capture some heart-breakingly beautiful moments. And you have to read it to get it. Explanation will cause it harm.

Besides just sweeping me away, though, the book reminded me of the small beautiful moments of life that are so easy to walk right past. I’m not sure how I forgot to look for them—but I blame the winter, namely. Before I go on a tangent about their significance, I want to define it as best I can—which, not surprisingly, is by quoting other people’s writing:

“Alone, in the huge apartment, with a glass of ambrosia in her hand, Camille listened to the voices of angels. Even the crystal pendants on the chandelier quivered with well-being…she must have listened to track number 5 at least 14 times. And still, even the fourteenth time she heard it, her rib cage shattered into a thousand pieces.” (Hunting and Gathering)

“I didn’t know what to think, but what I felt was magnetic and so big it ached like the moon had entered my chest and filled it up. The only thing I could compare it to was the feeling I got one time when I walked back from the peach stand and saw the sun spreading across the late afternoon, setting the top of the orchard on fire while darkness collected underneath. Silence had hovered over my head, beauty multiplying in the air, the trees so transparent I felt I could see through to something pure inside them. My chest ached then, too, in this very same way.” (The Secret Life of Bees)

In another top ten book, “A Severe Mercy,” Sheldon Vanauken says the following:

“Then—then she said something about how beauty hurts. ‘What! You, too?’ I exclaimed, in effect. ‘You know that? The pain of beauty? I thought I was the only one.’”

My hope in writing this is that there will be a handful of people who get what those passages are saying. That’s they aren’t just pretty paragraphs, but that you have your own moments that you have folded up in an envelope inside of you.

The only thing that I can attempt to do with this ache of beauty is capture it, and even that is elusive. It ultimately leaves me with my eyes facing eternity, when I have no doubt the longing to be a part of it will cease, namely because somehow we will an actual part of it. But until then, my struggle to capture and hold on to the beauty persists. Sigh. But I guess I’m doing my best to follow Sam’s example in The Fellowship of the Ring:

“Sam saw a white star, peeping among the cloud wrock dark high up in the mountains, twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him.”