Category Archives: longing

Want Not.

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(First, a note:  Sometimes life happens and my blog gets ignored.  The reading is still happening, for learning or escape purposes, but the time to reflect gets lost.  I’ve finished 5 books since I’ve last written and hope to catch up in the coming weeks, since now I’ve got nothing but time for a couple months.)

Summer in New York City is when I am most cognizant of waste: the waft of overflowing trashcans baking in the sun is, unfortunately, the smell I now associate most with July and August.  It is frightening to imagine the visual of the waste this city produces.  It seems that our culture’s general attitude is one of “throw away” convenience–and in one of my recent reads, author Jonathan Miles asks the readers to earnestly consider what we think we want, what we actually want, and the way we deal with the waste that is leftover.

Chosen for a teacher book club, Want Not is a novel made of three storylines that just barely overlap by the book’s end.  I can say with certainty that I didn’t love reading it, but once I got about half way through I began to appreciate the questions Miles was asking of his readers, stemming from the mantra “waste not, want not.”

For context, one storyline is of two “freegans,” a young couple living off the grid in New York City, squatting in an apartment for shelter and dumpster diving for food.  The woman is steadfast in her beliefs and the man a bit more electrified by his girlfriend and the thought of going against his materialistic parents than the idealism behind their lifestyle.  The second is a couple who lives in a “McMansion”: the wife lost her first husband on 9/11, the same morning she found out he had been cheating and planning to leave her.  Her second husband is a materialistic, narcissistic millionaire by way of debt collecting.  The final plot revolves around a middle aged professor on a committee to help design a site for nuclear waste whose father is battling Alzheimer’s and whose wife recently left him.

There were three questions I thought Miles was asking the to think about the story wove through at least seven narrators:

  • What do you desire in life?
  • How do you chase those desires? How are they related to the economics of your existence?
  • What do we do with our waste, both literal and metaphorical?

He suggests that in American culture today, people want immediately and easily: from iced coffees to homes to relationships, and this kind of wanting has broken down the notion of true meaning in life.  Though this was a long read and not every character has a personal revelation about the definition of waste and ill-pursued desires, by the end a sense of hope creeps into the plot.  One character begins to get rid of his “stuff,” starting with the extra things he had sitting around his house.  However, he started getting rid of most of his belongings: “With every sale or gift he could feel his broken life dematerializing, its old scarred edifice crumbling, the invited looters fleeing with its junked remnants, and with that feeling came astonishing relief,” (318).

As he came to reflect, the realization came: “Everything is salvageable. Even you,” (329).

I’m not sure that I could flat out recommend this book, because it took some serious work to get into, but I would recommend thinking about what you want from life–and if those wants are enriching and adding meaning or if they are piling up and taking up space but actually leaving you empty.  It is possible to reclaim a life you want to live.

Teen decisions: passion, idiocy, or both? Or, Character Analysis and the Prefrontal Cortex.

One of the things I’m most interested in thinking about right now is the human brain during teenage years and the early twenties.  I just completed a project for graduate school about social emotional learning and development and was amazed by all adults can do to enrich and equip the emotional health of teenagers.  Working with young people who are crossing over the bridge in development where their ability to comprehend language and speech is mostly complete into frontal lobe development is a fascinating, though sometimes exhausting, place to spend my working hours. According to Psychology Today “Fifteen-year-olds have not yet fully developed the ability to understand the consequences of their actions and act accordingly. They have difficulty with planning and organization, and learning from their mistakes. They often act impulsively or inappropriately, they have roller-coaster emotions, and working towards distant goals rather than being unduly influenced by immediate rewards is a stretch for them…The brain evolved in this way for a good reason. Teenagers need to take risks in order to make the leap from home and reliance on parents to independence.”

Not only is this directly tied to my profession, but it has become a fascinating topic of conversation with my friends and peers in recent years as we think back and study patterns, passions, and behaviors of our own teenage years and early twenties.  For most of us, it was a time of great desire to connect with something, though the means to attain the nondescript something may have varied under the large umbrella of simply wanting to feel alive: music, faith, the outdoors, literature, sports, theater, justice.  We took risks of all kinds in order These roots remain in each of us still, and yet the highs and the depths we felt seem like distant acquaintances, or as though they have gone through a strainer of life experience, wisdom, and perspective.  My thoughts are ongoing.

Overlapping these trains of thought was my reading of The Secret History by Donna Tartt over the past few weeks.  It was published in 1992 and unbeknownst to me, a cult classic, especially among people who were teenagers or college students when it came out.  It is the story of a tightly knit group of friends at a small, private college in Hampshire.  They are privileged, passionate classics majors who shun the traditional college scene for lives steeped in nostalgia for ages past and a devotion to their father figure professor Julian.  The narrator Richard, speaking many years removed, reveals how he providentially obtained a scholarship, left home, shamelessly lied about his past and became a part of this group of friends. He opens the story confessing to the group murder of one of its own that occurred not long after he learns of the dark place their thirst for something more took them.

After doing some research I learned Tartt called it not a whodunit, but a “whydunit”: the reader knows immediately where the book is headed (with a twist or two) and along the way is able to watch the motivation, justification, and aftermath.  This book was one of those long ones that is fun to sink into–the kind where I can’t just pick up another book after completing it because I’m not ready to completely leave it behind.

What I’ve been left with as I consider  the book is a bit of character analysis through the lens of the prefrontal cortex, though I will only provide the questions as I don’t want to give the story away.  I love the line with which Julian opened their classes: “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” It brought me back to my own teenage years which were ripe with the longing for something bigger, for meaning, for something to get lost in.  But, what did this invitation into the sublime do for these characters in particular? What does the sublime offer us as adolescents? As adults? What do we lose and gain as we develop?

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.

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.    

For those who have been wrecked that they weren’t called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it’s rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn’t have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)
Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in…He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn’t going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books–a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  “He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world–he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, ” (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  
When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: “Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they’re alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven’t been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin’s experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: “This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam,” (148).
As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children’s story), but he’s found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: “He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right,” (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: “Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him,” (311).  
The Magicians could be described as a grown up’s Narnia or Harry Potter–it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  
I don’t want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn’t room for magic–or at least hope.  Reading Quentin’s story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin’s hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality…Sure you can live out your dreams, but it’ll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead…The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 
One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: “Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded,” (216).
And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic–and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman’s book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can’t decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  
And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  
So.