Category Archives: truth

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.

On packing an apartment & Fahrenheit 451

I started a new graduate program and although I am doing one class at a time, it has, as I feared it might, taken a toll on my reading-and-writing-for-pleasure life.  The good news is my current class is called Literature for Older Children, so the books I’m reading and the thinking I’m doing aligns quite nicely with my passion for literacy.  But it also means I have a stack of 4 books I’ve finished that I want to write about.  I chose today’s book based on the other current time-stealer of my life: moving.  

My new lease a few blocks away starts next Saturday, so I spent last night packing and ended up with 20 boxes of books.  I admire when people move here with a suitcase or two, and part of me craves the simplicity of space that accompanies such a move.  But I remember when I moved to New York almost ten years ago now and felt  I needed to bring my books with me so that I would remember who I was in this brand new city. And through 5–almost 6–apartments I have packed and unpacked and added to the stacks.  Handling every book I own last night was an incredible experience in reflection because I began to see my story in the conglomeration of texts: my elementary reading self in my mid eighties copies of The Wizard of Oz and Number the Stars, the eight Virginia Woolfs I read in half a semester and how I was never the same again, the striking poetry contained in the prose of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy that cultivated the kind of book I love to read as an adult.  
In keeping with my New Years resolution to read book I already own, I finished Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury a few weeks ago and it reignited (see what I did there?) my passion for not just reading as much as I can, but for getting as many books in front of my students as possible.  Reading in 2013 the futuristic book Bradbury wrote the book in 1950 was fascinating (and reminded me of reading Super Sad True Love Story a few years back) because though his portrayal of futuristic technological and political powers were close enough to feel incredibly eerie.  
Montag, the main character, is a fireman–and in his time that means they start fires to burn books rather than put fires out.  Books cause people to think and to question–they disrupt ones mental “peace”–so the government has decided to do away with them.  Montag begins to feel restless and decides to quietly figure out what it is about books that makes them so dangerous.  
He is asked by a closet former reader: “How did you get shaken up? What knocked the torch out of your hands?” 
Montag replies: “I don’t know.  We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy.  Something’s missing.  I looked around.  The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years.  So I thought books might help.” 
“It’s not the books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…Take it where you can find it, in old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself.  Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.  There is nothing magical in them at all.  The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” 
Yes. And so upon reading this book I was re-reminded to keep my eyes open for the mysteries and to ask questions.  I was re-reminded that if my life feels off-kilter, chances are I’m forgetting to dwell in the details that make life rich and instead choosing to occupy myself with errands and to-do lists.  Packing up my own books reminded me of the stories that enrich my story and grew my desire to share this with the 100 students I see everyday: that they might question the world and seek beauty and desire understanding.  And I can’t do that unless I am living in such a way myself.   

Tree of Codes: an exercise in interpretation

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer was on my radar for a long time.  It was published in late 2010, but I knew that I wanted to read it with other people because it’s die-cut structure, taken from Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, is so unique (see picture.  He removed text and his story is what remains).  What he has left his readers with is like a heightened, poetic literary experience that feels almost universal because they barely know the narrator.  Its publishing house, Visual Editions, says that “books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell.” Luckily I have some kindred readers in my life, so we finally got to it after purchasing it at least six months ago.   We had our book discussion last week and realized that we wanted to nerd out, reread it, and reconvene in August for further conversation.   This interview from the New York Times further explains how this book is unique.

One of the most significant parts of our conversation came from looking at the book as a whole and the gaps in between the words: that perhaps they were a metaphor for what we know of people’s stories.  If we only get a small part of the text, what do we do with that information? Do we try to fill in the gaps? Accept that they are there? It made us think about whether we can we ever know the entire story of anything be it a historical event, a person’s life, or anything in between.

What pulled this together, though, was a statement in the middle of the story: “We find ourselves in the tree of codes.”  I am still thinking through what the “tree of codes” actually is, but I keep connecting it to the narrative of life: that there are stories and moments that we are left to interpret and seek out some kind of meaning.  A few pages later it says, “the last secret of the tree of codes is that nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion.”  This, of course, reminded me of reading–how one can read between the lines and take things away from the story, but how in art, and in turn life, interpretations may vary.

The biggest question from the text came on the third page from the end: “what was there to save us?” Having read The Street of Crocodiles after I initially read Tree of Codes, I know the deeper story of the original narrative; that there was a named conflict and that this question was practical.  In Foer’s version, when the conflict and story is more general and open, the question feels even more weighty.  It leads me to think about the different things that people need to be saved from in this life.  It makes me think about hope.  It makes me think about what matters and where beauty and truth and words fall into the picture. It also conjures up feelings of sadness that can surround beauty, as well, and nostalgia, and the wondering if it will all ever fit together.

So, if you want to, find a copy of this book.  It will take you no longer than an hour to read and will provide you with seemingly endless fodder for mid summer thinking if you have been left in a haze of humidity and discussions revolving solely around the weather.  I’ll be back with some continued thoughts in August.

Infinite Jest and Advertising. Or, real goods are intangible.

Infinite Jest is the kind of book that has to be read slowly because not only are there sweeping themes and ideas to keep track of, but there are short passages and lines that speak volumes into American culture.  While I was reading, it was easy to gloss over those small details without considering them in a significant way.  I want to slow down with a few.  Here is one.

“V&V’s NoCoat campaign was a case study in the eschatology of emotional appeals…It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relieveable by purchase.  It just did it way more well than wisely,” (414).

It comes in a section where Hal, one of the main characters and a junior at the Tennis Academy, is “sinking emotionally into a kind of distracted funk.”  In what appears to be almost a complete aside with the connection only being that Hal once wrote a paper on the American ad industry, the narrator explains the atmosphere of advertising (as the book is set in the near-ish future).  This particular ad was from a company that created a nation-wide need for tongue scrapers: “when the nation became obsessed with the state of its tongue, when people would no sooner leave home without a tongue scraper and an emergency back-up tongue scraper than they’d fail to wash and brush and spray.”

A. This is hilarious,
B. but DFW’s sense of humor is not what I want to write about, though maybe over coffee some time?

His tone and manner of addressing the absurdity of such aspects and culture is so nonchalant and un-ironic (and reminds me of his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)–as though he is pointing out the obvious.  Yet, it is obvious only in the subconscious that we hardly ever bring out to play, because life is easier when we don’t listen to it.

How did it happen that we know our next purchase will not satisfy anything within us and yet we continue to believe and act on the hope that it will?  Why is it easier to believe and act on the promises in advertising than it is in the life truths we claim to profess?  What is going on in our brains when we feel great after buying something new? Why is retail therapy a thing? That people joke about?

We are ridiculous.

I want to drink from a well of Life.

We tipped over the half way point for august. I’m slowly turning my brain on again.

I have not written on my blog since June.  I have a list of six blog posts in note form that haven’t been fleshed out yet.  Sometimes that is what summer needs to be–not the continual post its of to-do lists.   And now that I am looking at the tail end of August I find myself wanting to process through what this summer was and I’m starting to crave the structure of fall and the mental comfort of post its.  I thought it would be low key and in many respects it has been. But then I reread A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller and realized that my summer has been filled with challenge–in a good kind of way.  It kind of snuck up on me, though.

Miller’s book came out of what he learned in the process when two guys wanted to turn his book Blue Like Jazz into a movie.  He studied what I call in my classroom the “mountain of action” of a story–exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution and came to the conclusion that people can write better stories for themselves–and the book chronicles his attempt at writing a better one for himself.
One of his insights that stuck out to me the most was when he said: “Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life,” (186).  If the end goal of existence is comfort, then there hasn’t been the tension and the challenge and the pain that make a good story worth reading.  I realized as I was reading that this was a lot of my thinking behind a lot of my pursuits this summer–I got scared that I was getting into patterns in my life that were too easy.

I think it started back in May when my book club decided we were going to read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, all 1079 pages of its tiny print.  We wanted something that would be difficult, something that would make us feel accomplished, something that we probably wouldn’t be able to get through on our own.  I used post it notes to set small goals for every 70 pages, which was my weekly goal.  I usually read a book a week and this one took me from June 1st-August 8th.  My feeling of accomplishment waned a little bit when I closed the book and realized that I had a lot of rereading and research to do to make sense of it all.  But.  I’m also the kind of nerd who has been enjoying that process. 
Physically, I am half way through training for a half marathon in September.  Even though I’ve almost always been active, I’ve never been a strong athlete.  I realized that a large part of my life is doing what I want when I want it, and even though this is rather luxurious, I was pretty sure that wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to pursue.  The discipline of getting up and out to run almost every morning and pushing through when I’d rather stop has kicked me in the ass all summer, but in a good way.  I wanted to seek out a big goal that would be difficult (which I have to repeat to myself while running up that cursed gradual hill in Prospect Park).   I’m hoping that this becomes a metaphor for other aspects of life, especially the part about the process, as I’m sure I will not be breaking any records with my race time.

Mentally, I’m trying to be committed to a larger writing project that I have been dreaming about for over a year.  I started it last summer and then put it away for the year.  Apparently, it’s much easier to watch Netflix Instant for a few hours than it is to sit down, think and write.   I’ve had my fair share of days where my ideas seem too jumbled and I feel stuck. In fact, that’s where I am now.  But.  I’m hoping that I won’t give it up just because it is easier to sit on the couch with a book or my laptop or because it is more fun to make plans with friends every night.

Spiritually, I have been thinking about a life well lived.  I lost my grandma about a month ago.  As I shared that with people, the words that kept coming out of my mouth were that she lived a tremendous 95 years of life.  I love the ridiculous stories that my aunts and uncles and dad share about her from growing up. I love remembering how her stories commanded a room and my cousins and I would just be in awe listening to them.  I love thinking about the gallivanting she did well into her 80s with her sister.  I love that she watched The OC in her 90s and loved the villainous Julie Cooper just as much as my cousins and I did.  I also saw the sacrifices that many of my family members made for her at the end of her life to make sure that she was comfortable and surrounded by people who loved her. I can’t help but think that though it was probably one of the most difficult things to do, it is also one of the most admirable. and that there is a huge connection between sacrifice out of love for others and a story well lived.

All that to say, I don’t want to settle for an easier story. Miller also wrote: “Pain then, if one could have faith in something greater than himself, might be a path to experiencing a meaning beyond the false gratification of personal comfort,” (196). 

The only addendum or way to close this conversation about the notion of challenge is that it is so much more bearable when walked with friends and family.  I have an ongoing conversation with two of my best friends about what the perfect place to live is.  The only place we keep coming back to is anywhere, as long as we’re neighbors with good people.  The reading challenges get finished because I read them with a friend.  Running becomes bearable because I have friends reminding me I can do it.  Loss becomes lighter because there is a room full of people who loved the way you did.