Category Archives: love

defining love in an 8th grade english class.

I think it is a very small contingent of people who go into secondary english education and want to teach in a middle school.  Most of us dream of opening the literary eyes of high school students–the kinds who are past the stage of their hormones being new, the kinds who are starting to think critically about the world around them and their future in it.  Before I ended up at my school, I think I applied to every high school in Manhattan, none of which were looking to hire me.  Through a friend of a friend, I rode the train to Brooklyn for the first time a week into the school year for my interview and figured teaching middle school was much better than day-temping and evening-barista-ing I’d been doing for months.  That was almost 8 years ago and every year I get reminded why 8th grade students are amazing–and this year’s reminder is, not surprisingly, rooted in the epic-reread-bookclub of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (uber-nerds see this).

Every student chooses one of five books to read with me at some point during the school year.  Last year we had so much fun in the book club that I decided it was definitely worth it to do again, even if there wasn’t a movie release to celebrate along with it.   That brings me to this week.  (I’ll be talking across some of the best plot and character moves in the series, if you haven’t read the series yet and you don’t want to ruin your life, I wouldn’t read anymore.  Then I’d go out and start reading. Anyway.)
{usually I wouldn’t pick a movie picture
for a post about a book, but I do love the
movies and I think Alan Rickman is
brilliant.  Am I right, Nora?} 
Severus Snape is barely present in person in the last book of the series, though he is all most readers are thinking about after the close of book six when he committed an act of violence that broke the heart of every reader: either Dumbledore was wrong about him all along (and at the time, the very idea of Dumbledore being wrong about anything was unthinkable) or his trust in Snape had roots in something we did not yet know as readers.  I spent a significant amount of time between finishing The Half Blood Prince in July 2005 and starting The Deathly Hallows in July 2007 repeating to myself: I trust Dumbledore.  I trust Dumbledore.  I think that reading the backstory at the end of The Deathly Hallows is one of my favorite excerpts that I’ve ever read: Snape sacrificed himself, his pride and his ideas for love.  
In our book club we starting talking about how the character of Snape redefines for the reader that love, as demonstrated in entire series, is not about what someone else can do for me or how someone else can make me feel, but self sacrifice.  I watched as these 13 year old minds began to turn this around in their minds and all of a sudden they begin to discuss the other places in the book where this is present.  The first one that came to mind was, obviously, Lily Potter sacrificing her life for Harry, which is something that gives strength and power to Harry throughout the entire series.  We discussed that our empathy for Narcissa Malfoy begins when we see her begin to doubt Voldemort out of love for her son and ultimately chooses to risk her life in betrayal at the end of the series.  And then there is sweet Dobby who sacrifices everything. 
Love means sacrifice.  Love means self-forgetfulness.  And there is nothing better than hearing this from 8th graders, believed by many to be the most self centered age group in America.  

Oskar Schell: tiny existentialist and breaker of of my heart. Or, there is no freedom from feeling.

First, a note. I read and wrote about this book in 2007, claimed it as one of my favorites but haven’t read it since.  I’ve been thinking that I want to start rereading all the books I call my favorites this year. Also, as I mentioned in my last post, all of my recent reads are connected by the thread of freedom and I want to spend some time thinking that through.  So.

Nine year old Oskar Schell’s family line includes grandparents who grew up in the same town in Germany and survived the bombing of Dresden during World War Two, but didn’t get married until years later after running into each other in New York City.  Their stories are complex and sorrowful, and their marriage a union of two who completely understand loss, and yet the other’s presence is a constant reminder of their pain.   The grandfather by this time has given up speaking altogether and communicates only though writing.  In an attempt to not be swallowed by the weight of their grief, they literally made rules for how their apartment and their lives would function: “We made safe places in the apartment where you could go and not exist.” 

Interestingly, forty years later, Oskar made rules for his own life to manage his grief over losing his father on September 11th: he finds a key in his father’s things and creates a quest to find what it opens: …until I found it, I didn’t love Dad enough.”  He is seeking both a reason to exist and a closeness with his father.  I originally wrote about the idea of safety when I first read the book–which is ultimately what these characters are all looking for.  The more I thought about it, I realized how fleeting emotional safety actually is–and I think that Oskar somehow knew this .  Though Oskar shares the tendency toward an existential existence with his grandparents, the rules of his journey come with the hope that he will ultimately find catharsis–and that will free him from his current emotional paralysis and take him back to the safety he felt when he was with his father.  Oskar invents when he is upset, often of ways to keep people emotionally safe: 

“I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing.”

“We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families and our friends, and even the people who aren’t on our lists, people we’ve never met but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe.” 

“In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.” 

“[S]o if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!” 

It is incredibly painful to read this happening to a nine year old boy.

 Emotional safety is fleeting–and that is a tragedy of human existence. The last scene of this book (which I won’t tell you because you should really just go read it yourself) pulls my heart in a way that few books can.  And yet, freedom comes from allowing ourselves to hurt–and by that allowance we are not completely swallowed.

a story about time, and. unapologetically, a story about love.

March was filled with two weekends of packing and moving, a favorite friend in town, the annual trek to Washington, DC with students and no internet at home for the past week. But. I am now moved in and attempting to have a normal-looking life again.

That being said, I’ve finished some books since I last typed on here: Lost Illusions by Balzac, Special by Bella Bathurst, Until You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  I have dreams to backtrack and write about them all in the coming weeks since I’ve skipped out on my Saturday morning ritual for almost two months.  Hate that. We shall see. I most recently finished The Time Traveler’s Wife, so I will start there.

I started out reading this because I wanted a quick, engaging read for spring break.  Many evenings were spent reading well into the morning. Henry is a time traveler who is not able to control when or where he goes.  In his twenties, after he meets Clare, his wife, he begins to travel back to her childhood.  Therefore, Clare always has memories of Henry, but Henry does not have memories of her until after they have met in real time, but is able to go back to other times of their lives with the perspective from the future (and yes, despite my Lost-watching, time travel is a difficult concept to wrap my mind around.)  Time and love are the two major themes I considered while reading.

Time is a funny thing that I can’t stop thinking about lately, especially the relationship between time and self. When Henry visits from the future, young Clare isn’t the same as the Clare in his present. When he meets 18-year-old Clare, he misses the depth that is the 33-year-old Clare. It is interesting to think about how time changes us and how it happens without us necessarily realizing it until we step out of it.  The core of me is the same, but I have changed so much in the nearly seven years I’ve lived in New York.  Though I can’t plot out the exact moments that changed me, it is interesting to track our own stories of becoming…and to realize that I don’t want to go back to my 23 year old self, as uneasy as I am to turn 30 this year.

I find myself always skeptical and sometimes cynical of saccharin literary love stories.  Because of the popularity of this book, I carried this attitude into my reading, but as it turns out, Henry and Clare’s love story was beautiful in its complexity and imperfections and passion.

Time travel worked as a metaphor: in the present time Clare and Henry face incredible loss and it wears on their marriage.  Henry though, is able to revisit the times in their relationship when poetry was personified and was able to remember why love is worth fighting for.  I think that this concept is often lost on many of my own generation: things get difficult and the overriding belief is that it’s easier to quit than to work through it–be it a relationship, a job, a dream. Remembering the good and true can completely change one’s perspective.

What impressed me the most–or maybe what I connected to the most–about Niffenegger’s book was her incorporation of poetry into the most emotionally charged moments.  I am a firm believer that poetry can encapsulate any moment better than prose or conversation or dialogue.  I am most often drawn to modern  and post modern poetry, but I was completely wrapped up in the verses from Homer’s “The Odyssey” that Niffeneger leaves the reader with:

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful in his arms,
longed for as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea. 
Few men can keep alive through a big surf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.
(translated by Robert Fitzgerald)

I could write about this excerpt from the Odyssey and draw comparison’s about travel, difficult journey’s and hardship, but I will spare you (unless you want to come over to the new apartment for a book talk, please do). But in a rare moment in which I will not apologize for waxing romantic, or in the back of my mind judge myself for being saccharin (because its not a good idea to mock the Beautiful) I will say this:  the idea of having a person as a metaphor for home, the idea that through all of the hardships there is someone who will fight for you and wait for you, someone who cares about where you are and who you are and whose eyes will light up the minute that they see you, that is a beautiful thing.