Category Archives: summer

Summer Reading Conclusions.

IMG_3874

The newest member of the Warren family, Penny.

Sometimes there are summers when you buy a kindle so your reading can easily be packed for your escapes, and sometimes there are summers when reading itself is the escape–that is the story of this one. Embracing NYC summer isn’t my strong suit, unless it’s after sundown, and with my limited travel this year, I think I nerdily broke some personal records for number of books consumed.

I spent most mornings in July on my fire escape drawing and painting and making my way through Natalie Goldberg’s (author of one of the best books on the writing process, Writing Down the Bones) The Great Spring. In this one she writes about the connections between writing and meditation, and how intertwined her practices of each have become over time. The other nonfiction was a bit darker in nature, including Sleeping with the Enemy, (about Coco Chanel’s Nazi ties during World War Two), Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (fascinating and informative story about the rare autoimmune disease she survived), and Dog Medicine (about how author Julie Barton made it through severe depression with the help of her golden retriever).

IMG_3569

Walking through Kentucky wildflowers with my parents in Louisville.

I read a lot of fiction about modern families (A Blue Spool of Thread, Among the Ten Thousand Things, The Nest, Did You Ever Have a Family) and the one I would most highly recommend is Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. It is about how a family deals with the depression and severe anxiety of the father and one of the sons. Haslett’s fictional account has roots in his own familial experience and as he tells the story through the voices of the wife and children, a reader gets a thorough picture of how people cope (or not) through incredibly poignant writing with a dose of dark humor.

The truth that stood out to me the most in the majority of the fictional characters I read this summer (who are representative of the majority of people I pass on the street? I don’t know.) is that people are unhappy. But. The thread of hope I found in some of the fiction stories and much of the nonfiction is trying to be truly present in the moment can assuage that reality a bit. Not worrying about what has passed or what may be ahead, not mindlessly scrolling at other people’s 140 characters or pictures, but looking for the beauty in the moment. This is a recurring theme for me–a roller coaster of a theory that I haven’t mastered, but the more I read, the more I want to try.

IMG_3614

A few days with my extended family out east.

My most recommended book, though, is actually a young adult novel: All American Boys. It tells the story in two voices: of a black teenager wrongfully arrested and beaten by a white police officer, and a white teenager who witnessed the event. Both narrators wrestle honestly with questions our nation faces–and with nuance, an art rarely seen in most mainstream media. I tell students books can be mirrors–that help us see ourselves, and books can be windows–that help us see others. Way more than any of the adult-level fiction I read this summer, this book was hands down the most thought provoking and important.

All this to say, I am excited to get back to work in a few days. I can’t wait to talk about All American Boys with my students, and I’m pretty excited to think about reading as more than just an escape, though it was the perfect medicine for this particular summer.

 

Feeling alive. Or, thank you Gwen Frostic and Mary Oliver (yet again).

I’ve been wanting to write about one of my favorite parts of summer, and since I just finished making my way through Mary Oliver‘s New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, I figured it was the perfect time. One of the conclusions I’ve come to about maintaining sanity while busy is how necessary it is to slow down and connect with the things that make us feel alive. I’ve written a lot about the stress of my last year (school-year time, not calendar) and the different ways my summer helped me crawl out of that anxiety-ridden time.

In the middle of August I drove some friends to northern Michigan to where one of them has spent time every summer since childhood. The five days of our trip were spent doing all the things I love: driving on country roads with good music, buying copious amounts of produce and cider donuts from road side stands, the sounds of the woods, starring at water, riding in a boat, cooking and drinking wine, and being amazed at nature.

image2

The Cottage Book Shop, Anna’s boat, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Cherry Republic

One of the highlights was going to the studio of local artist Gwen Frostic, who passed away in 2001, but whose studio has been kept up and running. She created woodblock prints inspired by the landscape around her, and their stunning simplicity was a perfect pairing for my love affair with the words of Mary Oliver; both are inspired by not just nature, but nature’s capacity for healing and reflection.

From “Morning Poem” 

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn't walk away without.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn’t walk away without.

From “Starfish”:

It never grew easy,

but at last I grew peaceful:

all summer

my fear diminished

as they bloomed through the water

like flowers, like flecks

of an uncertain dream,

while I lay on the rocks, reaching

into the darkness, learning

little by little to love

our only world.

A few weeks later, I drove upstate to Windflower Farm for their CSA campout with a dear friend and along the way we ate at my favorite restaurant of all time, dropped in on a show by the inspiring artist Lisa Congdon, and drank up the farmlands around the Hudson River Valley. We spent so much time talking about how it was worth it to go out of our way to see Lisa’s show, and to talk to Maggie at her cafe, and to be with Farmer Ted on his land: being around people who create inspires creation.

Maggie's Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Maggie’s Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Insert school and grad school starting right after the farm trip. Needless to say, I rareIy had time to slow down and create. I’m tired of this being my story of a school year. When I felt tired, I sat on the couch and tried to catch up on The Good Wife in the name of “relaxation”. Nothing against The Good Wife (you know I love my shows), but even though I was technically relaxing, my soul didn’t feel alive. Thankfully, Daniel and I went on a walk to Prospect Park this morning and talked almost the whole time about art (please look at his work) and cultivating a life that helps create it. I found myself snapping pictures of leaves and trees I wanted to draw. It’s amazing how if I do the things I truly love, my desire to create increases. And in turn, I feel more full. And relaxed. And alive.

So, my goal for this favorite season of my life is to choose to spend time walking to the park or to the river. To not let tiredness or busyness be an excuse for the kind of relaxation that doesn’t really relax in the end. I’ve been reading a lot about the art of attention: being present and noticing the beauty of life around me. Hopefully that will weave its way into it all, too.

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.

Summer Reading Conclusion

Watercoloring on the beach in Montauk.

Watercoloring on the beach in Montauk.

I’ve written about it before, but one of the best parts of my job is that there is a beginning and an end to each year: a built-in opportunity to reflect, refresh, revise.  The summer season is truly a gift.  Most summers I have some kind of writing project to work on, but this year I decided I wanted to continue the line of thinking that began last fall and throw myself into something that felt artistic, deadline-less, like play.  I spent most of my July mornings reading through art books and working on drawing and watercolors, rereading Henry Nouwen’s With Open Hands and Mary Oliver’s poetry.  Less writing happened this summer, but it was one of creative freedom and cultivation.  I found myself at the ocean every weekend and breathed deeply.  My family drove in from Kentucky and we were able to spend some glorious days at the beach out in the Hamptons with my uncle, aunt, and cousins.

Family reading time.

Family reading time.

August weekends were mostly spent traveling to celebrate weddings and see family and old friends in the midwest.  The weeks were suddenly filled with less art and more work as I started preparing for a new summer school program I helped run, and to get ready to have a full time co-teacher and plan for some changes in our curriculum.  I love my job, so it was engaging and enriching as I dreamed about growing kids into stronger readers and writers, but some of the summer magic slipped away under the piles of binders and stacks of young adult short stories.  I kept reading, but alas, have not written (or painted) much this August.  But what I’ve learned is that there is a season for everything–and I am ready to embrace the fall and the ways it makes me feel alive. But first, here’s the rundown of what I did read this summer–in typical fashion, I covered a lot of the fiction from my original summer reading plan, but not the nonfiction (links are there where applicable and super short descriptions).

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (a quick, delightful read for the nerdy set)

Someone by Alice McDermott (a poetic, yet unromantic, sketch of an “ordinary” woman’s life)

Transatlantic by Colum McCann (the first half was difficult to get through, the second half, magical and especially moving for me)

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (a darkly comedic family story, soon to be starring the likes of Jason Bateman and Tina Fey)

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (beautiful and thought provoking…a full post coming soon)

Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman (solid summer mystery)

The Charm School by Nelson DeMille (an interesting companion to watching The Americans, though with an underdeveloped female main character)

Yonahlosse Riding Camp for Girls by Sheri Fink (historical coming-of-age, though I felt lukewarm about it)

How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer (quirky, slightly underdeveloped but entertaining love story that walks the line between astronomy and astrology)

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (my favorite book of the summer)

The Summer Book by Tove Janssen (on my parent’s porch, and as always)

A few weeks ago my mother-in-law sent me a picture of the earliest trees near her house in Ohio that were beginning to have a touch of autumn on them.  It was the perfect reminder that each year in late August I mourn the loss of summer, yet enjoy the pull of fall and the promise of its color and crispness. May September bring you good books, hot drinks, hooded sweatshirts, and the perfect soundtrack.

An Unlikely Pairing: The Lost Generation & The 4th of July

Lately I’ve been on a Lost Generation reading spree.  It started with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with a student book club and giving them some introductory information about the era and then I happened to read The Paris Wife, which is a semi-fictional story narrated from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Afterwards, I was fascinated by not only their relationship, but the ex-pat community in Paris, so I went on to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was a memoir of his time in Paris which he wrote not long before he died and published posthumously.  I was so entrenched in the era that I decided I wanted to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was on my summer reading list, right away.  Then of course I re-watched Midnight in Paris and noticed all the inconsistencies (though I still love it).

Just like Woody Allen’s Gil Pender, it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the ex-pat community in Paris–the incredible art, literature, salons.  Though it is impossible for me to not say that what this reading spree brought up in my thought life the most was how glad I am to be a woman today.  The culture of multiple mistresses and people openly accepting it, coupled with double standards for women and hypocritical expectations for wives in light of it all was truly grotesque.  Zelda Fitzgerald’s own artistic life was stunted by Scott having her publish under his name or forbidding her to pursue dance or publish her writing work at all, saying that he had claim to the ideas within it.

The concept that struck me the most while reading, though, was that of memory, which I’ve written about quite a bit over the years.  It’s the great invention of the mind in Rodman Philbrick’s Young Adult Freak the Mighty. In Evening, by Susan Minot, it colors the narrator’s entire existence.  In Man Walks into A Room, Nicole Krauss’s main character loses his memory of all things relational.  In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai talks about some parts of our narrative are lost and some are purposely forgotten.

I am trying to decide where it fits for Hemingway.  Early in The Paris Wife, he takes Hadley on a trip to where he recovered from being injured in World War 1.  In his mind, the field was still desecrated with loss of life and the town where he was taken care of was pristine and quaint–but neither was the case when he arrived:

“When Ernest found the slope where he’d been wounded, it was green and unscarred and completely lovely.  Nothing felt honest.  Thousands of men had died here jut a few years earlier, Ernest himself had bled here, shot full of shrapnel, and yet everything was clean and shiny, as if the land itself had forgotten everything,” (103).
“For the whole visit, Ernest wrestled with memory.  Everything had changed and grown dingy in the four years since he’d been here,” (102).  
I suppose it is one of those mysteries of being human–how we can long so deeply for times that are past, even if those times were accompanied by struggle.  Perhaps in our minds, they remind us that we made it through, or perhaps the struggle has been slightly erased so that we don’t remember that part anymore.  Hemingway himself describes it in A Moveable Feast: “There are many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger,” (57).  
Elk Lake, 2011.  I only wish I had a
picture of the American flag boxers
my best friend and I *sewed ourselves*
for 4th of July 1996. 
Today, for me, memory is hunger.  On some levels the memories I’ve been escaping to this morning seem insignificant–but it happens every 4th of July that I am in New York City–a city I love with all my heart.  All I want right now is to be watching my hometown’s parade, wearing my running clothes from the annual 5K, thinking about swimming in somebody’s pool and going up to the high school for fireworks later.  Or, sitting at a simple lake house, eating off the grill, and watching a homemade fireworks display planned by friends I’ve known since the mid nineties.  I keep finding myself wanting to justify my nostalgic longing for these simple memories or the audacity I have for writing them in connection to Hemingway–but I’m not going to, because it’s what is true for me today (which is interesting, because the quotes I wanted to write about in this post have been sitting in my blog drafts for a month)

What I do think is worth considering, though, is when you begin to appreciate what is past.  Hemingway did not write of nostalgia until the end of his life.  A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, was published after he took his own life and carries a tone much different from his earlier work.  In a painful-to-read confession he states that he wishes he had died before falling in love with anyone else.  I’m not sure that I believe him, completely.  Hadley asks him in The Paris Wife, not long after the visit to the town where he was shot and recovered: “When does it mean something? When everyone finally gets smashed to bits?” (145).  I think that is a fair read of Hemingway–and a terrifying way to live, but it pulls together my thoughts.  When he was with Hadley, he could only think of what might be next. The present didn’t take on any value until it was long gone.

This year I started talking with my students about the idea of being present where you are, whether it is in a class discussion, a book club, or with their friends.  I suppose that is what I wish the men of the Lost Generation understood (hoping that it wasn’t that restlessness that produced their drive and in turn art), and on a much smaller level, what I need to remember as I go over to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to celebrate Independence Day with dear friends later.  It is in view of the Statue of  Liberty, after all.

an aside, after my initial posting: I want to think later today about the implications of these American writers who chose to do so much of their writing elsewhere.  Looking at the title of this post, one might infer that my writing about it was a little more academic.  But alas.  It is a holiday, after all.