Category Archives: small moments

Beautiful Ruins.

9780061928123_custom-70e2b335f923fa2b9e2d96fcc5dbe44c914184d6-s6-c30I love my job for a lot of reasons.  I was reminded of the best one while at class a few weeks ago: that reading and writing are tools for meaning-making.  My professor handed us a copy of some of the new Common Core Standards for reading and writing, documents I’ve been looking at professionally for a number of years now.  She wanted to experiment to see if we could train our eyes to look at the standards in a new way: to find the “echoing chord” of the work it is asking us to do.  For instance, she looked at Reading Standard 1, which is about referring to details and creating inferences and said that for her, the small details of life have always mattered: small objects, a look, the things of small beauty that make her feel grounded again.  She said to create meaning from the standards, we have to leave reading and writing aside, go into our lives, and then return to reading and writing.  In that space we will find the moments and the lessons that will make our teaching come alive.

I proceeded to look through the standards in a way I’ve never done as a teacher.  All of a sudden, describing a setting in depth became deeply worthwhile.  I thought about what my home means to me: the chalk mural of Ohio and New York my husband made, our wall of old family photos, the urban basil we are attempting to nurture in the window.  These details began to tell a story of the place–and I realized that to teach setting, we can think about the settings that have been significant to us.  We can grow that into understanding characters and themes and moods.  It’s beautiful life work.  I went on to do this thinking with sequence of events, point of view, literary patterns…and I’ve never felt more passionate about the work I get to do each day.

And of course, I was finishing the book Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters on the train that day and everything came together beautifully.

The book’s cover is a picture of Manarola, part of the Cinque Terre in Italy, where I visited on my honeymoon last summer.  This plus an endorsement from a friend was enough to get me interested.  It is set in Italy in the 60s, California in the present day, and a handful of other places as we follow the various archs of the characters. It mostly tells the story of a young actress who finds she is pregnant with a famous actor’s child, and then finds companionship in the young owner of a hotel in Italy where she is sent by a producer to hide the pregnancy.  The reader follows these characters into the future, where their lives intersect 50 years later.

This was an entertaining read for the first half and then became a deeply poignant read for me.  Walters is writing, essentially, about story and meaning-making: how people are changed, shaped, and propelled forward.   By the end I was utterly floored by the ways he interwove these characters and their regrets, justifications, creative pursuits, and their journeys to make meaning in their lives.

There are a lot of gorgeous, thought provoking lines I could quote and write about, but without context, they lose part of their depth.  So, I will leave it at this: there is a moment toward the end of the story where the entire mismatched cast of characters are watching local theater in Idaho and find themselves stunned and moved by what they see and they all draw inward.  And this, I think, is what they were looking for all along: something that would propel them to stop, think, and make meaning.

The title provides some insight into the discoveries–beauty has emerged from the struggles.  Walters is insightful enough that not every character has revelations that bring rich insight and inner peace.  Through those characters readers can see the shells of existence that remain when life merely becomes a place to craft and project an image.

So, this book helped propel my current planning for my summer reading and adventuring…more to come soon, but it is all operating under the theme of looking at art and the details, draw inward, and live.

the small details which are actually huge.

I’m beginning to re-remember that the best things in the world are not something I can grasp onto with my hands: though the handful of pink spring petals I swiped from a windswept pile on the sidewalk the other day comes pretty close.  I was on the verge of finishing The Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins as I was watching them all float out of my hand and had a realization that they were evidence of things unseen; the ache of beauty and springtime right in front of me.

 It is a book intricate in its details and rich in the scientific and literary research that must have been compiled for the layers of meaning inside.  It was a book that rambled through its words so slowly and deliberately that at times and I wanted to put it down, despite my love of poetic language. But as I reached the end, I found myself wishing I had a professor telling me to go back and trace the repeated references and symbols, to stop and look at each of the characters and what they represent in its historical setting of the New Deal, the Atomic age and the Tennessee Valley Authority. And, to trace the evidence of things unseen, which is translated differently throughout the book.  Sometimes it is the mystery of science: atoms and light, and sometimes it is the mystery of life itself: love.

I loved how tiny, seemingly insignificant details, like springtime details in Brooklyn, provoked such deep emotion within the characters: “…in a narrow cubicle behind a curtain were her things, all neatly folded. When he bent to lift her shoes he was so unaccountably overcome with grief he had to lean against the wall to compose himself.  Her shoes, he realized, triggered the emotion.  The fact that they were empty, that he so rarely touched an article of clothing of hers she wasn’t wearing. And her shoes triggered the memory, sudden, clear as daylight, of the first time he had seen her, the first time he had seen her footprints in the sandy track that led to Conway’s furnace and the house she’d lived in.”

It just breaks my heart to read that and realize that such tiny details can reveal the depth of the human heart. I need to keep watching for them.

Clenched Hand

Staring out the café window, I was waiting the rain out but pleased to have the stolen time and an excuse to be absorbed in my thoughts; it was coming down with a cold, beautiful passion. Without book, friend or phone to distract me, the city actually felt like home. I lost my broken heart in the pace of the traffic and hundreds of passersby, each with their own agenda for the day. Manhattan was mine to get lost in, but not physically like in the days when it was new and huge.

I think this was about the time I began to notice my magnetism to small objects with great detail; ones that I could hold in my hands, solid and silent, and yet write their narratives in my head for hours. Old typeset letters in baskets. My grandmother’s china. The brass buttons holding upholstery. I am haunted by their stories and memories and try to will them to talk to me.

What letters were written, or stories, perhaps? Did they wrestle with words and giving voice to complex emotions that beleaguer their insides? Does someone still remember them in quiet moments, with just a teacup and a window for companions? Who chose the intricate gold on the turquoise rim? Who came to the first dinner party in the late thirties? Do shadows still dance on the inside of her mind, remembering? Did anyone count the buttons on the chair, to have something to do while waiting, waiting for word to arrive? What was it like to feel the pressure of those nervous, frantic fingers? Sigh. It all eludes me.

These were the things I was wondering about as I stepped out of the subway at the southern end of the island, wind blowing as it always does. The shrouded Deutsche Bank building is in front of me, as always. It was supposed to be demolished years ago. Lights hang on the skeletal stairs, so that people and planes know it’s there. I feel akin to that building sometimes—like I have little lights hanging on my wrists and the back of my knees so that people don’t run into me.

I breathe deeply like I always do passing the cemetery. One of the only places downtown where I can smell real dirt, I gulp it in—slowly, though, if you can imagine. Each day I mentally keep track of hostas, as if I carefully planted them myself. Without fail, their daily progress and the way they cause the pocket of financial district air to smell like Midwestern evening nearly stops my heart in the best of ways. Next to the church, it is nearly too much. How do you name the combination of beautiful, thoughtful and prayerful?

Lights dance
on stairwells
of emergency exits.

Shadows play
behind old graces,
taunting me

Estranged lives
alternately fading
Or growing.

Even in this city
flowers perfume
the night air

And sometimes
I try
to hold it
in my hand.

An explanation? A refocus? Or new kind of focus? Something like that.

I’ve been writing a lot lately. For years I tried to put it off, but it is something that I can’t avoid anymore. I admit that I was afraid. I can’t tell you how many notebooks I’ve started with passion, but have left unfilled. Starting this blog a year ago was my first jump in forcing myself to feel comfortable with other people reading what I wrote. So. It’s time to experiment a bit more and move beyond missing my years as an English major. Not that I will stop writing about reading…I can’t help it. But I am going to start sharing some of my other stuff for about the 4 people who read my blog…but this is still scary, and I need to explain a few things.

1. Nothing posted here will be in “final draft” form per se. I am a ridiculous revisionist…perhaps to a fault.

2. It’s experimental. The genre that I like to work in isn’t exactly defined. Influences include Jack Kerouac’s definition of the modern haiku, poetic writers like Jonathan Safron Foer and Arundati Roy, and subtle conflict that speaks to inner tension. Multi-genre writing.

3. Most of what I post for now can be described as a “small fictional moment” trying to incorporate all of the above. Things may or may not have been inpired by what I’ve seen or done, but are fictional in nature. “Small moments” actually comes from the lovely Teacher’s College and is part of what we try to teach our students. My professional goal has been to practice what I’m asking my students to do.

4. I’m in the process of trying to develop a unique voice and confess that I feel sophomoric in my attempts. This is not easy for me to do, but it is good. I think. I’m going to start labeling my posts, and these will be called small moments.

Ok. Just needed to say that. Gracias.