Category Archives: slow down

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Camille is a starving artist, both literally and figuratively, when we meet her–talented, withdrawn, lonely.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.

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.

The magic of paying attention: Mary Oliver’s "A Thousand Mornings"

{photoshop image, The Octopus Garden}
wrote about my favorite album of the year, Over the Rhine’s Meet Me at the Edge of the World, back in September, which became an anchor for my soul this fall: an album I returned to countless times to be reminded of beauty and truth and the way I wanted to live. I also shared a link to an article I loved about their writing process.  In it, I found we shared a few common inspirations, which led me to check out some of the writers they mentioned, including Mary Oliver.
Oliver’s work is rooted in observing nature and cultivating a sense of place and in a quest to feel more grounded and aware, I took to reading her poetry collection A Thousand Mornings one poem at a time each day with my breakfast throughout October and November.  What I found while reading her work was that I began to look at the world around me in a different way.  Even though I live in a city, my eyes were sharpened and my breath deepened as I watched the rhythms of autumn and early winter around me.  I found myself staring at the patterns of leaf veins, and letting falling snow calm me down.
I came across the image I included above while researching Oliver, and it has become a guide for me in pursuing a watchful spirit and a creative life.  Looking for reasons to be amazed, and living a life filled with wonder–especially when they don’t cost a dime–is a game changer.

The Gift of Solitude: applicable to all adults, as described in a young adult novel.

If there is one thing I try to share with my students throughout the year, it’s the idea that each one of them has a story: that you can never know someone’s story just by looking at them, that it is one of life’s greatest gifts to get to hear other people’s stories, and that it is a privilege for me to get to know theirs throughout the course of the year.  My hope is that they will take the time to really know one another and build a community of understanding, respect, and kindness.

And then I had a moment where I met a protagonist I wanted every student to know:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: We all want everything to be okay (page 6).

The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common (page 77).

In my experience, desire is desire, love is love.  I have never fallen in love with a gender. I have fallen for individuals.  I know this is hard for people to do, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard, when it’s so obvious (page 142).

A handful of my students were raving about Everyday by David Levithan in our weekly “Friday Favorites” five minute share and after hearing the premise, I knew I wanted to check it out.  The protagonist, A, is essentially a soul (without a gender): s/he wakes up in a new body everyday while maintaining a fully developed sense of self–just no physical body with which to express him/herself.  This is one of the most thought provoking and creative young adult books I’ve ever read.  It touches on so many young adult emotional-development issues, but not in a preachy way: the protagonist authentically brings them up and because his/her life experience is so different than the average human, and based on what I’ve witnessed in my classroom, I think young adult readers will just soak it in.

But I also found a section that spoke into everything I’ve been thinking about lately: maintaining a sense of self, of peace, of purpose.  He falls for the girlfriend of a [horrid] guy whose body he occupies for a day and then ends up maintaining a relationship with her–his/her first ever–though each day s/he is in a new body. S/he sees the stress she deals with and the broken, hurtful relationship she is in.  When s/he unexpectedly wakes up in her body one day, he decides to try to give her the gift of peace in solitude and goes for a long hike.  The description he uses is amazing:

I’ve decided to give Rhiannon the satisfaction of being fully alone.  Not the lethargy of lying on the couch or the dull monotony of drifting off in math class.  Not the midnight wandering in a sleeping house or the pain of being left in a room after the door has been slameed shut.  This alone is not a variation of any of those.  This alone is its own being.  Feeling the body, but not using it to sidetrack the mind.  Moving with purpose, but not in a rush. Conversing not with the person next to you, but with all of the elements.  Sweating and aching and climbing and making sure not to fall, not to get too lost, but lost enough…When no one else is around, we open ourselves to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer (197-198).

I meet monthly with some friends and we talk about the creative pursuits in our lives and what we are learning about ourselves in the process.  It has become a treasured time for me.  My November wasn’t as creative as I planned: I made some substitutions for painting and calligraphy in the name of stress and exhaustion and travel, which at the time seemed justifiable.  I realized, though, that my substitutions weren’t the same, even though I was technically “doing nothing.” I realized once again that I need to spend intentional time opening myself “to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer”–whether that enormity is staring at sky behind the branches of newly leafless trees, breathing in the scent of my Christmas tree, or taking out my paints and ink to let go and create.

Here’s to a beautiful winter season filled with beauty amidst the darkness.

(And here are some other winter thoughts in case you, too, struggle with the fact the sun goes down at 4:30, or just need some context and/or hope from someone who is often winter-hopeless).

How reading short stories is reminding me to live more reflectively and intentionally.

I recently read a novel that could be described as a collection of somewhat interwoven short stories called Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell. I was drawn to this book because it seeks to explore the moment’s that shape women’s identity as women.  In hindsight, I wish I had read it slowly, as there wasn’t an overall character arc for each character, but a few snapshots of their lives.

This summer I read Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy and fell in love with his rich, poetic style of prose.  While on a walk through the West Village I found a collection of his short stories called The Secret Lives of People in Love and began making my way through them.  What I’ve learned, though, is that for me, short stories for me are best read slowly and sporadically.  If I read them as a novel, I don’t take the time to stop and think about what the author is trying to say in each one or mull over the small details that speak into human existence.

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that I am more grounded as a person when I’m letting my reading wash over my mind and impact the way I’m looking at the world.  I read through the first 13 of Van Booy’s 19 stories so quickly that my brain didn’t have time to consider the weight of lines like: “Without memory, he thought, man would be invincible.” One of the reason’s I bought Schappell’s book was because I wanted to think about how the female identity is formed–especially as I am teaching girls at such a critical developmental stage and stocking my library with books that they will be reading and thinking about.

This is not to say that all of my reading is deep and reflective.  The other book I’m in the middle of is The Snowman, a thriller by Jo Nesbo, which has been a distractive force and an escape from life this week.  Sometimes I need reading for that just as much as the kind that makes me stop and look at life differently.  But, for now it is time to slow down.  It is time to breathe deeply and reflect, especially in the midst of the devastation of my city and surrounding ones post-hurricane.  The roots that my reading deepens can then be taken out into the world, to be on the look out for small moments of poetry and to develop an eye that is sensitive to the human story happening all around me.