Category Archives: nonfiction

The July of nonfiction and fire escape porches.

I stumbled across a poem by my hero Mary Oliver yesterday, and it’s an interesting place to begin as I think of my summer, and though it wasn’t in my mind yet, these lines encompass the theme of the past two months:

it is a serious thing /just to be alive /on this fresh morning /in the broken world.

{my people}

{my people}

When I teach reading, I tell students to pay attention to the actions of the characters–that they often speak deeply into what’s really going on or what they really need. I booked a ticket to leave New York City the day after school got out. That is exactly where I was mentally and what I needed. To go home and breathe. And, of course, to laugh, eat grilled food, and drink wine.

 

In July I realized that sometimes simply reading to escape is necessary–I disappeared into more than a dozen books and didn’t write about a single one. In a more physical sense, after spending ten days on my parents’ porch, I felt trapped just thinking about my Brooklyn apartment and its lack of one, so I threw caution {the potential $125 fine} to the wind and turned our fire escape into a porch. This mainly involved taking a beach chair out the kitchen window, staring down squirrels, ignoring the jackhammers in the front of the building, and breathing through my mouth to avoid the sour dishwashing air from the restaurant below. BUT. It was outdoor space and I happily spent almost every morning reading nonfiction on it: Long Life by Mary Oliver, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and Looking at Mindfulness by Christophe Andre.

{my "porch"}

{my “porch”}

The threads I began to see in these books was the value of pausing to create meaning from the world around me. I often pause to create meaning from the books I’m reading, but it was like I needed the fiction to remain an escape and to start reflecting on, interpreting, and being more. So, I unintentionally took a writing sabbatical and found myself joining my husband in making art on our coffee table, pursuing meditation, and learning how to play chess (and, let’s be real, watching Major Crimes and two seasons of The Americans). I got to the beach and to the woods with a dear friend. I wandered the city with Daniel.

Interestingly, on one of my last July mornings on the porch (August brought a week intensive class at Columbia, traveling, and now beginning to think about the school year), I found myself looking at the vine-y plants that migrated from the fence below, up the walls of my building and around the fire escape and saw that in order to climb, they shoot out these tiny arms which wrap themselves around anything nearby. I realized that my time in July was just that: reaching for the truths to sustain my spirit. Here are some of the ones that stayed with me:

“Where have these moments of reflection gone in our modern lives? Certainly not to the radio or television that we turn on as soon as we get home, or the screens that enslave us. Rather than being ways of ‘taking our minds off things,’ these actions, particularly when they become reflexes, stop our minds being rooted–the exact opposite of what reflection is all about.” (Looking at Mindfulness, page 93)

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.” (The Faraway Nearby, page 4)

[The earth’s] intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them. For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world’s appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” (Long Life, page 25)

It always seems to comes back to Mary Oliver: that though the world is broken, it is certainly beautiful. And there is meaning to be made.

Help. Thanks. Wow.

In following with the month of November and trying to lead a life where its richness and depth trumps my to-do lists, and in the same vein as pursuing a life that described in this post about Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection, I’ve been trying to keep a journal for a few minutes each morning for what I am thankful for: the small things like miniature pumpkins and the big ones like my family alike.  

This morning I am thankful for Anne Lamott and also her short book on prayer: Help, Thanks, Wow.  I first read Anne Lamott ten years ago when we had to read her book about writing Bird by Bird for a class.  Randomly afterward I realized I had a handful of friends who were really into her book Travelling Mercies, which is about her faith and was such a refreshing read.  I’m thankful for a writer who can mentor me through a season of wanting to let go of my anxiety and frantic pace.

There are three sections, each dedicated to a word in the title, and she walks the reader through admitting we don’t know what to do, the art of gratitude, and the way that wonder can change us and the way we see the world.  I could subtitle this book “breathing deep through all the things,” because she describes how these prayer rhythms anchor her as a person able to face life with courage.  It reminded me what a gift centeredness can be.

So I just want to share two excerpts and throw them out into the universe in the hope that someone will connect with them as well, and feel just a little bit more full today:

Without revelation and reframing, life can seem like an endless desert of danger with scratchy sand in your shoes, and yet if we remember or are reminded to pay attention, we find so many sources of hidden water (page 53).  

We’re individuals in time and space who are gravely lost, and then miraculously, in art, found…In paintings, music, poetry, architecture, we feel the elusive energy that moves through us and the air and teh ground all the time, that usually disperses and turns chaotic in our busy-ness and distractedness and moodiness.  Artists channel it, corral it, make it visible to the rest of us.  The best works of art are semaphores of our experience, signaling what we didn’t know was true but do now (page 82).

Brene Brown, game changer.

I first heard of Brene Brown last winter when my friend Lindsay told me I had to watch her TED talk called “The Power of Vulnerability.” It was a game changer for my emotional health, y’all.  Then Lindsay and I decided we would both read her book The Gifts of Imperfection and it was the perfect follow up for helping me process through what it means to live with meaning and purpose and without anxiety.  Reading the book and reflecting on Brown’s research and how it related to my life has been an incredibly powerful experience.  I’ve slowly and reflectively read this book over the past five months or so. This post is a little vulnerable, but I think Brene Brown would be in favor of me sharing and owning these pieces of my story.

My core spiritual beliefs (grace, love, forgiveness, stillness) have remained much the same over the years, but there came a time when I had to face the fact that from every angle I was hearing: strong people of faith ________.  As a high achieving people pleaser, for many years I ran without stopping in my volunteer work, my actual work, and in the commitments I made in my free time.  Sometimes despite hearing an overarching message of grace and love, I felt as though I was constantly not measuring up to what I was “supposed” to be doing, which was difficult for a perfectionist (though now I consider myself a recovering one) and felt as though I had to be apologetic for my introverted nature.  I’ve taken the past few years to redefine what a spiritual life looks like for me and to (finally) learn to be ok with the fact that it does need to look like anyone else’s.

A lot of authors have mentored me through this journey: Mother Theresa with Come Be My Light, Anne Lamott with Traveling Mercies and Bird by Bird, Joan Didion with The Year of Magical Thinking, Susan Cain with Quiet, Colum McCann with Let the Great World Spin, Eric Metaxes with Bonhoeffer, and of course the poetry and music of Over the Rhine.  What I appreciate about Brene Brown is that her book seemed to pull together all of these literary influences and helped me to redefine and find freedom in what spirituality looks like for me.

In the journey of trying to define what my spiritual life looks like now, it honestly can be easy to simply not think about it, thus avoiding existential dilemmas.  But, the anxiety that so easily creeps in reminded me that being grounded and intentional is life giving and I noticed that not having an intentional grounding in faith, I became less hopeful in general, a bit cranky, and I forgot to look for beauty.  Brown’s definition of spirituality piqued my interest because I was (still am) so tired of the minutia of Christian theology:  “By spirituality, I’m not talking about religion or theology, but I am talking about a shared and deeply held belief.  Here’s how I define spirituality: Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in compassion.  Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives” (64).

When she wrote “It’s not about denominations or dogma. Practicing spirituality is what brings healing and creates resilience. For me, spirituality is about connecting with God, and I do that most often through nature, community, and music.  We all have to define spirituality in a way that inspires us,”(74)  I was reminded of the life nature gives me and how washing dishes or walking with music centers me, and how dinner with my husband and great friends grounds and connects me.

One of the messages I have struggled with as a Christian is that “everything happens for a reason,” which I simply cannot buy into no matter how many scripture based conversations I have.  This felt really isolating, especially in the early days of this journey.  I have landed in a place of confidence and rest with this issue and others, and reading Brown’s book helped give greater clarity to me: “At first I thought faith meant ‘there’s a reason for everything.’  I personally struggled with that because I’m not comfortable with using God or faith or spirituality to explain tragedy…Here’s how I define faith based on research interviews: Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of certainty” (90).  Faith as a beautiful mystery has been one of the most healing perspectives I’ve run across.

To close, one of my favorite parts of the book was when Brown discussed the fact that we can change our neurological pathways, something one of my old pastors used to talk about, too.  It is possible to physiologically change our patterns of thinking (google neuroplasticity).  I’m now living in a way where I am trying to incorporate rhythms into my life that help me feel grounded, connected, grateful, and covered in grace.  This is happening for me through reading, taking time to be creative (watercolor and calligraphy lately), cooking, looking for beauty, and  practicing stillness.  It looks different, but feels beautiful.

Story always seems to be the answer: the narrative structure and emotional health

I read mostly fiction.  I believe–and tell my students–that fiction can often be more true than fact in the ways that it can teach us about life.  What I’ve come to learn, though, is that it’s not necessarily fiction per se, but narrative.  Story.  We are doing a coming-of-age literature unit and my biggest hope is that my students, just beginning some of the uphill climbs of growing up, can find hope in the ways that the protagonists they are reading get through their struggles.  I want them to see that in studying the classic story mountain structure, that there are hills and valleys that are sometimes hard to make sense of or see their way out of, but that resolution comes.  Often, it is not what was originally sought after, but there is a knowledge and a wisdom that appears after making it through.

Everything seems to be aligning, though, because recently I’ve come across two nonfiction resources that have discussed this same phenomena: that understanding narrative can help people emotionally process through life better.

The first came from the New York Times a few months ago in an article called The Family Stories that Bind Us by Bruce Feiler.  In summary, he discusses the idea that the best thing that a parent can do for a child is to develop a strong family narrative.  He says when child feels that he or she is a part of something greater, the child will be more resilient in challenges, feel safer, and even happier.  The most interesting part, though, was that when they studied children who knew their family narrative, there was a delineation among them that produced a stronger child, still.  The three major narratives were “We worked hard to get all that we have, and we made it” “we had it all and lost it, and we made it” and the third created the most emotionally healthy children: “we’ve had some ups and some downs, and we made it.”

The second comes from Brene Brown, a writer and researcher whose work has been really influential for me since I first saw her Ted Talks in the fall and recently began reading The Gifts of Imperfection with a good friend of mine (one of my few non fiction books this year).  Obviously, she speaks about our state as imperfect humans, and the fact that despite we know that about ourselves, we often live in ways that demonstrate the opposite.  One of the core tenets of her research has been “when we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness–the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.” Own our story.  This is a life changing sentence, that brings me back to the idea that the greater understanding we have of the “mountain of action” structure of life–knowing their will be new starts, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution–the healthier we become.

On that note, I’m looking forward to making my summer reading list, which I’ll be posting about soon.

Introversion: not a bad word! Or, reflections after reading "Quiet" by Susan Cain

{cartoon via Out Came the Sun; originally
by Eat Up What’s Good For You}

All throughout school, group projects exhausted me.  Besides being kind of type A and kind of smart, therefore often doing most of the work, I always felt like I would have learned more and created better work if I could just do it all myself.  Culture and even my educational studies have told me that is a wrong way to think, though. Collaboration is key to a good learning experience! Because I believe in community and giving everyone a voice, I continued on–as a student and as a teacher.

I remember a conversation a few years ago where one of my friends explained how his company was catering to its different personality types: extroverts were energized in brainstorming sessions with other people while introverts were energized by being given the time to independently work, then share their ideas, then brainstorm together.  I remember thinking: if only my teachers understood this! Everything could have been different!   For years I have joked about my sometimes-anti-social behavior (I love to have either Friday or Saturday night to myself and if someone cancels plans I’m sad to not see whoever I was meeting, but relish the “stolen” alone time), but then my understanding grew to know that extroverts are literally energized by being around people and introverts are energized by time alone.

All of this makes so much sense to my introverted–yet very social self–as I look back on my personal history.  In college I lived in a 4 bedroom house with 7 girls and was involved in a very people-centered mentoring program where apparently everyone thought I was an extrovert because of all the large and small group leading I did.  However, what kept me sane all those years was the long drive back to campus in my car, listening to music.  The down side was that I think I was much too quiet in my classes as a result.

One of my friends who is also a teacher and I were talking recently about what it means to be an introvert and a teacher of 90-120 students each day–and how long it took for us to realize that being involved in numerous groups outside of the school day wasn’t life-giving to us in the way it was to people who had less social jobs.  Rather, it was draining.  Period.  But a level of guilt has always accompanied me in that: I grew up thinking that I always needed to be as active and involved in possible.

A few of my kindred spirit-educator friends and I have had multiple conversations about being introverted–and our sometimes-tendency to drop back or stay home or hopelessly try to make ourselves be a bit more extroverted.  One of them came across the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain and suggested that we read it together.  I’ve spent the last few weeks laughing out loud about all the things she explained about my personality type that I have long thought I needed to try to change.  This book would also be eye opening to extroverts, as well–especially those who manage people at work.  I also laughed when I saw how New York Magazine described this book in their “How to read 31 Self Help Books in Four Minutes” article: “a feel-good book for the silent type.”  New York Mag, I love you, but you misunderstand introversion just like the rest of them.  Sigh. Cain unpacks the idea that we live in a culture that celebrates the “extrovert ideal,” and her anecdotes and research are fascinating.  I would completely recommend this book to introverts in order to better understand yourself, or extroverts, to better understand the introverts in your life.  She analyzes “mixed” marriages, work collaboration and even how to set up space in a place of business.

So.  This year I’ve decided to fully embrace my introverted personality.  I’m pretty interested in thinking about my teaching practice, my religious practice, and my own emotional and physical well being in light of what I’ve learned in this book.  I did not learn to hibernate or to not stretch myself in ways that may seem painful, but rather than fighting up against my natural temperament, I want to see what happens when I use my knowledge of it to live better.

Also, as a side note, and an encouragement to my other introverts out there, Cain shared a number of life changing works have come from introverts including Harry Potter.  So there’s that.