Category Archives: redemption

The Great Gatsby and how the city seen from the Queensboro Bridge changed everything

Every year I have students join a book club with me (I’ve written about World War Two and Harry Potter) and this year I added The Great Gatsby to the list of choices for students who are ready to jump into some more classic, adult literature.  I studied The Great Gatsby in high school, college and graduate school, but those lenses into the story don’t seem to quite fit for 8th grade.  Luckily I still have time to think about that, but I also got stuck figuring out how to write about it here: this is not a book review or a literary essay blog, so I went back to my roots and thought about how the story speaks into life at this moment, and at this moment I am thinking about the city.  My city.  New York.

Most New Yorkers with a literary slant in their lives know all the classic lines about where we live, and Fitzgerald’s description is one of the best: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and all the beauty in the world,” (73).

This is the New York I like to think about the most: the one that still feels magical 9 years later, the one that offers up perfect autumn dinners eaten at the counter and walks into bookstores on the corner and cafe tables on the sidewalk and life swirling around.  The one that has perfect theaters for rainy Sunday matinees that follow a long brunch at a South African restaurant.

And yet. There is also “…a valley of ashes–a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air,” (27).

This is the New York that I also think about.  I can be literal and think about the insane amount of trash that we proffer to the sidewalks or the hours lost waiting on a train that has been rerouted for the weekend.  I can calculate the money I have spent in rent over the years or figure out how many pounds of groceries I have carried over x amount of miles.  I weigh these things often these days. Or, more heavily, I can think about the students who walk into city schools coming from families who don’t value education and don’t see their own worth and a system that doesn’t know how to help.  I can think about the men and women who sleep on the streets and the paralyzing feeling of not being able to help as I walk by with my smart phone in hand.

I dream a lot about a little house with a fire place on a little piece of land, where life could be quiet and where I could see the sunset every day.  And that may happen still.  But.  Living in a place filled with both beauty and ashes has changed the way I read the world around me–and I don’t think I could ever be the same, or shake the feeling that no matter how cozy my life is, whether that is reading my book while homemade tomato sauce is simmering on my stove in my studio apartment or some future multi-room home in my future, there are ashes scattered around me–and that I should never stop looking for ways to help beauty and life to grow among and out of them.

in the company of those who struggle.

I came across Mary Karr’s book Lit after I read an article in New York Magazine about her, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen.  I had read all of the authors except for her and sought out to get a copy of The Liars Club.  Then I found Lit, an incredibly written memoir based in Karr’s alcohol abuse, the dissolution of her marriage and recovery, on a brownstone’s stoop and decided that would work.   I later found out that a few friends of mine had recently read and loved it, so I moved it to the top of my “to read” stack.
{I’ve learned that sometimes I love to share the story of how I stumbled upon a story.  Thanks for indulging me.}
There are a few parts from Lit that I haven’t stopped thinking about. One was that her recovery and redemption came in the company of those who struggled, too.  Karr found herself in AA with a mix of every kind of person imaginable, none of whom she would have sought out on her own.  The friends she made there were from across the social spectrum, people whose paths would have never crossed otherwise. And yet, they became a lifeline for one another because they deeply understood that struggle is best endured together. No one lives immune to hurt–and that means that each of us has something in common with every person we meet.  
I would not normally call myself a cynic, but in the winter it happens from time to time. For some reason that was the space my mind was inhabiting in the week I was reading this book: not in response to the book, but just in response to life.  I often get frustrated at the instagram-portrayed life.  Don’t get me wrong, I think small moments of life’s poetry are worth sharing, but sometimes it is easy to start thinking that everyone around has a perfectly curated life.  I know this theory is false.  Or, I start soaking in cynicism about the self promotion social media induces.   I’ve found that when I remember that I am always in (and a part of) the company of those who struggle, my heart seems to grow in compassion.  
I am always trying to teach my students that books make us better people because we learn to empathize with almost any character once we understand the ins and outs of his or her story.  Sometimes the teacher needs to remember this, too. 
 I also didn’t realize just how much spirituality was a part of Karr’s journey, and when added to a life rich in real community, a portrait of how beautiful–and simple–life can be rose before me. 
Therapy rescued me in my twenties by taking me inward, leaching off pockets of poison in my head left over from the past.  But the spiritual lens–even just the nightly gratitude list and going over each day’s actions–is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved,” (304).
I really can’t add much to her words, except that by allowing herself to consider, and ultimately accept, the way faith, not religious duty, could change a life, her life and mental landscape began to change.  Sometimes I forget this–and reading Karr’s story became one of the brightest reminders of my winter–and my own cold weather induced cynicism and anger has begun to slip away.  

The House of the Spirits.

Isabel Allende’s epic of the Trueba and del Valle families is filled with every provocative theme in literature: love, violence, betrayal, mysticism, wealth, poverty, and politics. My book club picked it in direct response to The Savage Detectives, whose author Roberto Bolano detested Allende along with the established canon of Latin American literature.

Stylistically and developmentally, they couldn’t be more different. The thread that runs through both of them is a desire to have life restored to what we (first person plural because I think that this is in all of us to some degree) feel it should be: beautiful. The following passages serve almost as a call to action from Allende’s voice herself: to tell the the stories that need to be told and to search for beauty in the broken. First:

“Cement walls were erected to hide the most unsightly shantytowns from the eyes of tourists and others who preferred not to see them. In a single night, as if by magic, beautifully pruned gardens and flowerbeds appeared on the avenues; they had been planted by the unemployed, to create the illusion of a peaceful spring.”

This creating of an illusion is present in the smallest of ways in our lives like not admitting to failure, or being more concerned with image rather than person and not wanting to get mixed up with other people’s messes. And in the largest: gated communities, displacement of people in the name of development, serving those with the most money to throw at the economy. I want to be a person who prefers to see the messes and know the people. Living in illusion to truth seems more dangerous than the other way around.

And second:
“Clara also brought the saving idea of writing in her mind, without paper or pencil, to keep her [Alba’s] thoughts occupied and to escape from the doghouse and live. She suggested that she write a testimony that might one day call attention to the terrible secret she was living through, so that the world would know about this horror that was taking place parallel to the peaceful existence of those who did not want to know, who could afford the illusion of a normal life, and of those who could deny that they were on a raft adrift in a sea of sorrow, ignoring, despite all evidence, that only blocks away from their happy world there were others, these others who live or die on the dark side.”

If we are to break down the illusion, we need books and art and music that are courageous enough to tell the story of the mess of humanity. And people who are not scared to steep in these stories for a while and be changed.

And I think that if we start letting grace seep into our own messes and of those closest to us, we’d be a step closer to abandoning the illusion and finding beauty and hope in the broken?

Revolutionary Road. Do not watch this before going to bed unless you want to be up all night.

Last night I watched Revolutionary Road and I’m trying to think of words to describe it other than “bleak and utterly depressing.”

If you haven’t seen it or read the book, it follows the story of April and Frank Wheeler who, with a slight chip on their shoulders, believe that they are better than their suburban Connecticut counterparts; that they aren’t going to buy into the delusion of the American dream despite their picturesque home, 2 children and his good (though unfulfilling) job. The 1955 setting adds to April’s feeling of entrapment and some of the social pressure Frank feels.

It’s interesting because I usually associate entitlement with my own generation…but usually that entitlement still resounds within the modern American Dream…wanting the life that it took our parents decades to build almost immediately after college. The Wheelers sense of entitlement is that they think that there should be something more to life for them.

And they’re right. There is something more to life–but I think I think I think that it is completely separate from our place and our things (though I am in love with my city and I am guilty of saying my life would be perfect if I only had a porch and a grill). My sweet poet friend Shannon titled a photo album “The Land of the Living” and that phrase jumped out at me (as I was online after watching this movie, trying not to fall asleep thinking about the bleak and utterly depressing film). I guess I feel like the minute we…I start living out of routine and checking the boxes of what needs to get done I stop living. But when I remember that its about loving people and that everyone has a story to tell and that there are little moments waiting to make me smile, I am reminded about what living really is.

So my question is what makes up your land of the living? What are the things that remind you that life is beautiful?

One of my favorites is from 2002 when I was driving with a caravan of 3 mini vans back to Ohio from a spring break spent camping trip on an island in Florida. Sitting in the front passenger seat, playing my favorite songs with the windows down and my hand rising and falling with the air outside of it and orange blossoms in bloom, my friend Sarah and I could do nothing but smile and declare ironically at the end of a vacation, on our way back to gray Ohio March that life is good. A passage from The Secret Life of Bees describes this feeling perfectly:

“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, this very same way.”

And even though they’re fictional, I wish that the Wheelers could see how such small moments connect the dots of our existence–giving it beauty and meaning alongside the sorrow and disappointments.


“It is perhaps not too much to say that, in the first decade of the new millennium, humanity has entered into a condition that is in some sense more globally united and interconnected, more sensitized to the experiences and suffering of others, in certain respects more spiritually awakened, more conscious of alternative future possibilities and ideals, more capable of collective healing and compassion, and, aided by technological advances in communication media, more able to think, feel, and respond together in a spiritually evolved manner to the world’s swiftly changing realities than has ever before been possible.” -Richard Tarnas

I found this book on my roommate’s shelf a few months ago and was immediately intrigued by the title. In my urban life of over-commitment and busyness, Blessed Unrest sounded like the best example of an oxymoron. The subtitle made it so clear, though: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World. This book essentially discusses how the wide variety of social justice and environment groups are bringing about real change…and how we need small groups in all different places to be actively pursuing the health of our planet and its people.

I have long been convinced that so much in this world needs healing and that greed has done so much of the damage that afflicts humanity. Working toward this healing isn’t restful, but it is good and blessed. This book challenges some of the accepted realities of the world and of the United States and asks the reader to reconsider his or her thinking. I cannot respond to this book as a whole because it is merely too rich in information…I can only recommend that others read and think about what it addresses.

I am convinced that our country cannot be about the only the financial bottom line–but that we need to figure out how people can be the bottom line and how markets can be a healthy way to support human dignity and what makes life worth living. Below is a list of some of the most thought provoking quotations that I read along the way.

“To those who carp about low wages and poor working conditions in developing countries, free market advocates argue that freedom and prosperity require time and sacrifice. But whose time and whose sacrifice?…The world’s top two hundred companies have twice the assets of 80 percent of the world’s people.” (page 119)

“Why must such groups [that argue, demonstrate and litigate for human rights] operate at the margins of society simply if they believe that social justice and human rights should not be sacrificed when corporations shift their manufacturing to the lowest-wage countries?” (page 126)

“As effective as markets are, they are tools, not reality. Markets make great servants, but bad leaders and ridiculous religions…Trade is not the salient issue; the critical question is: Who sets the rules and who enforces them? There can be no sustainability when institutions whose primary purpose is to create money are dictating the standards.” (page 135)

“When small things are done with love it’s not a flawed you or me who does them: it’s love. I have no faith in any political party, left, right or centrist. I have boundless faith in love. In keeping with this faith, the only spiritually responsible way I know to be a citizen, artist, or activist in these strange times is by giving little or no thought to ‘great things’ such as saving the planet, achieving world peace, or stopping neocon greed. Great things tend to be undoable things. Whereas small things, lovingly done, are always within our reach.” (page 188, quoting Duncan)

So I suppose my closing thought is that change is within our reach–because if we bring this love of humanity into each of our spheres in life–our homes, our friendships, our workplace, our places of worship, our neighborhoods–that is when change will begin to occur. And that is when we will all begin to remember–on micro and macro levels–what makes life valuable, and that it typically has nothing to do with money at the end of the day.

Human Rights Watch
Natural Capital