Category Archives: kindreds

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

imgresI first read The Elegance of the Hedgehog in 2009, not long after it was translated from French. While reading it this time, I had two separate French people stopped me on the subway to tell me what a wonderful book it was. When I went back to see what I wrote about it on my blog after the first time I read it, I saw I didn’t. It made my Top Ten Books of the Year but apparently a lot of the books I love the most I haven’t written about–as though they were too immense to try to put into words. But now, seven years later, I will try.

The story alternates between two narrators who live in the same Parisian building. Paloma is a 12 year old girl who is frustrated with the rich, privileged people she comes from and is surrounded by. Renee is an autodidact and the long time concierge in Paloma’s building. She has created a secret life for herself, hiding her passion and ability for learning and philosophy, and love of civility behind what she believes to be her peasant-like station in life. As the story progresses, each character learns in her own way, as their paths cross with each other and a new tenant in the building, to live more freely as themselves, and to reassess how they perceive others.

Paloma’s story begins when she states she is going to commit suicide at the age of 13 because she can’t bear the world any longer. Her narratives are excerpts from her journal, where she records what she calls “movements of the world”–“the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us” (page 38). Her hope is that she will find a reason for being, and reading the different things she noticed reminded me to look for them, too.

I love Paloma’s journey, especially as a middle school teacher who appreciates/understands the simultaneous energy and self-centered nature young adolescents possess. Renee, though, is like a dear friend. She encompasses, in most ways, the kind of quiet, reflective life filled with learning that I want to have for myself. In her story I found so much of the mindful nature I work at on and off. She speaks of her daily tea with her best (and only) friend:

“I know tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” (page 91).  Here she is talking about tea, and she is also talking, unknowingly, about herself. Renee’s greatest flaw is that she wants to hide her best self from everyone, and in doing so misses out on the joy of kindred souls.

My favorite moment of the book, though, is when after gathering courage and dressing up for a night out with a new tenant, none of the old tenants recognize her. The new tenant replies “It is because they have never seen you. I would recognize you anywhere” (page 303).

The story of Renee finally sharing who she really was and the beauty of this new tenant to see it has been filling my thoughts the past few weeks–to what degree do we see people? Or do we just pass judgement? Or make assumptions? What friendships are we missing because we are holding back? I want to have eyes like this new tenant. I want to teach my students to have these eyes. To see without prejudice. To find small moments of beauty when all else seems dull.

{As a side note, I saw the French film version 3 or 4 years ago, and loved it as well. Of course, only after having read the book.}

If you’re looking for a book to read next to a snowy window. Or, my first reread for my blog’s tenth year.

imgresHunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda was published and beloved in France in 2004, and finally made its way into translation in 2007. It crossed my path when one of my friends who worked in publishing got ahold of a galley that she fell in love with immediately and then passed it on to at least 2 other friends. Somehow I am the one left with the galley, and I’ve recommended the book to countless people since. When I finished it this week, I was so glad I decided to reread it and so sad when it ended again.

When I talk to my students about conflicts in books, I usually end up using the terms macro and micro: what are the big societal issues affecting the plot, and what are the more personal issues affecting the plot? Hunting and Gather is a micro-issue kind of book. It doesn’t speak into the larger culture, but it does allow us to see how human connection–though messy as hell–can impact the trajectory of one’s life.  It is the kind of book that isn’t challenging, but simply lovely to get lost in for a week.

Camille is a starving artist, both literally and figuratively, when we meet her–talented, withdrawn, lonely. Philabert is a history loving, nervous post-card seller whose stutter and anxiety has left him rather hopeless, and his interests and manners seem better suited for another time in history. Franck is his unlikely roommate, a chef who works hard, plays hard, and doesn’t often take much time to think about his underlying anger or unhappiness or the fact that the grandmother who raised him is falling apart. These four people find their lives entangled when Philabert rescues Camille from from her lowest point and moves her into his apartment.

So this book may not change the way you look at the world, but it may inspire you to think on the small, beautiful things of the world, which is always a worthwhile pursuit.

Feeling alive. Or, thank you Gwen Frostic and Mary Oliver (yet again).

I’ve been wanting to write about one of my favorite parts of summer, and since I just finished making my way through Mary Oliver‘s New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, I figured it was the perfect time. One of the conclusions I’ve come to about maintaining sanity while busy is how necessary it is to slow down and connect with the things that make us feel alive. I’ve written a lot about the stress of my last year (school-year time, not calendar) and the different ways my summer helped me crawl out of that anxiety-ridden time.

In the middle of August I drove some friends to northern Michigan to where one of them has spent time every summer since childhood. The five days of our trip were spent doing all the things I love: driving on country roads with good music, buying copious amounts of produce and cider donuts from road side stands, the sounds of the woods, starring at water, riding in a boat, cooking and drinking wine, and being amazed at nature.

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The Cottage Book Shop, Anna’s boat, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Cherry Republic

One of the highlights was going to the studio of local artist Gwen Frostic, who passed away in 2001, but whose studio has been kept up and running. She created woodblock prints inspired by the landscape around her, and their stunning simplicity was a perfect pairing for my love affair with the words of Mary Oliver; both are inspired by not just nature, but nature’s capacity for healing and reflection.

From “Morning Poem” 

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn't walk away without.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn’t walk away without.

From “Starfish”:

It never grew easy,

but at last I grew peaceful:

all summer

my fear diminished

as they bloomed through the water

like flowers, like flecks

of an uncertain dream,

while I lay on the rocks, reaching

into the darkness, learning

little by little to love

our only world.

A few weeks later, I drove upstate to Windflower Farm for their CSA campout with a dear friend and along the way we ate at my favorite restaurant of all time, dropped in on a show by the inspiring artist Lisa Congdon, and drank up the farmlands around the Hudson River Valley. We spent so much time talking about how it was worth it to go out of our way to see Lisa’s show, and to talk to Maggie at her cafe, and to be with Farmer Ted on his land: being around people who create inspires creation.

Maggie's Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Maggie’s Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Insert school and grad school starting right after the farm trip. Needless to say, I rareIy had time to slow down and create. I’m tired of this being my story of a school year. When I felt tired, I sat on the couch and tried to catch up on The Good Wife in the name of “relaxation”. Nothing against The Good Wife (you know I love my shows), but even though I was technically relaxing, my soul didn’t feel alive. Thankfully, Daniel and I went on a walk to Prospect Park this morning and talked almost the whole time about art (please look at his work) and cultivating a life that helps create it. I found myself snapping pictures of leaves and trees I wanted to draw. It’s amazing how if I do the things I truly love, my desire to create increases. And in turn, I feel more full. And relaxed. And alive.

So, my goal for this favorite season of my life is to choose to spend time walking to the park or to the river. To not let tiredness or busyness be an excuse for the kind of relaxation that doesn’t really relax in the end. I’ve been reading a lot about the art of attention: being present and noticing the beauty of life around me. Hopefully that will weave its way into it all, too.

Reading the Lyrics: Thoughts on a Perfect Concert

In the fall, I wrote about Over the Rhine’s latest album and the way their work has influenced me as a person since college.  In December, my dad sent me an email with a link to a concert: Mary Chapin Carpenter, my first singer-songwriter love, was going to play a selection of songs from her throughout her career with the New York Philharmonic.  I bought tickets immediately and began revisiting all of the songs that have spoken deeply into my understanding of the world since I was twelve.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t experience the ache of beauty and have vivid memories of laying on the brown carpet of my childhood bedroom listening to music for hours, often rewinding the same song repeatedly.  Mary Chapin Carpenter wasn’t on my radar, though, until I was about 12–the stage when I began to try to really make sense of the world around me.  I had recently started listening to country music (which was where she was initially marketed).  While my future husband was an hour and a half away the exploring the early nineties rap he would later perform for me, I was requesting Trisha Yearwood and Blackhawk CDs for my birthday, and of course expanding my collections member of BMG music club.  Somehow Come On, Come On made its way into my collection and I don’t think I ever fully recovered–and as I sat last Saturday at Lincoln Center I was simply stunned by the beauty of hearing the most important songs of my adolescence played with a full orchestra.  And this is what Carpenter is able to do: craft lyrics that tap into what it feels to be human that can layer within memory and experience and take on new meaning as the years go by.

Unfortunately I was not given a singing voice, but what  listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songs and poring over the beautifully crafted lyrics did for me was make me want to write.  I was lucky enough to have the same amazing ELA teacher for all three years of middle school and she pushed me to pursue writing stories and poems, which I did with the kind of adolescent passion I wish I could conjure up now.  I dreamed of crafting lyrics that told the kinds of stories she did–ones that noticed the details other people skipped over like in “Only a Dream” and like John Doe #24, which she wrote after reading a newspaper article about a young black man who was deaf, mute, and later blind who ended up in the Illinois mental health care system in the 1940s.  She made me want to look at the world in a different way, and she still does.

My dad and I have always shared a love a music and my childhood weekend memories are colored by the music he played from the room below my bedroom.  I was obsessed with and fascinated by his record collection that spanned at least ten feet across one of our closets, convinced that each album had some kind of story attached to it.  In third grade I got my own stereo for my bedroom, the first of my friends, and got into the habit of leaving it on when I left.  It drove him crazy, so he would always change the station to country when he passed as my consequence (you remember how hard it was to get the station exactly right before everything went digital, right?).  Unfortunately for him, that tactic stopped working when I was in middle school, but it opened the door to our shared love of country and his ongoing claim that he “was country when country wasn’t cool.” This is true, and in fact Gene Autry was one of his childhood heroes (and one of my and my brother’s favorite Christmas albums).  As Mary Chapin Carpenter became a mainstay in my music rotation, my dad grew to love her work as well, especially 1994’s Stones in the Road.  Listening closely to the lyrics, he said the title song captured his demographic’s generation.  We went to see her at Wright State’s Nutter Center that spring and one of his hero moments was when he talked the guard into letting us sit in two second or third row seats, which remained open during the opening act.  That was twenty years ago. It was magical.

Sitting at Lincoln Center last Saturday, that is exactly how her music felt, and even more so.  In all of the songs she played I saw roots of the ideas and philosophies I still hold dear.  In the  “Notes on the Program,” Rebecca Winzenried writes that the songs played (which were recorded on her latest album Songs from the Movie) included “titles culled from the span of Carpenter’s career, rather than being limited to her better-known hits, and presents those lyrics that demand a listener’s attention.” The entire show was curated like a journey.  Vince Mendoza arranged the orchestral music and said “the key to this project was finding the meaning of the song and “painting” it with the orchestra…I had to deconstruct Mary Chapin’s lyrics to find the underlying emotional thread that opened up a whole world of dramatic possibilities with the orchestra. Nature. Love. Loss.  Remembering. Dreams. Summer in our hometown. Pure humanity.”

So, again, I am left with the reminder that the right words and music are one of the best guides for the road.  I am so thankful for writers (and parents and teachers) who narrate the way for me and push me into my own writing and reflecting.

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.