Category Archives: winter

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).

Winter Writing Inspiration.

I finally finished Cloud Atlas this week, but it’s one of those books where now I need to process and think and research because David Mitchell packed so much into it.  While I gather my ideas, I thought I’d share some thoughts on writing, especially in the winter.

A friend and I decided over drinks a few months ago that we desperately needed to start a writing group–some accountability to actually put the pen to paper and to bring the pieces living in our heads to life.  We start next week.  As I’ve been trying to prepare some work, I realized I’ve done quite a bit of writing in this space about winter.  And then, serendipitously, another friend of mine sent me this blog post from the New York Times that starts this way:

In early winter, when the heavy rains come to the Pacific Northwest and we settle under a blanket of sullen sky, something stirs in the creative soul. At the calendar’s gloaming, while the landscape is inert, and all is dark, sluggish, bleak and cold, writers and cooks and artists and tinkerers of all sorts are at their most productive.

I do not live in the Northwest, but I live in a city where it seems I walk a half mile to get anywhere, bundled for winter as I have no car with an automatic starter or seat heaters.  I now choose warmth over fashion and can really only wear boots in the winter, always have a winter hat in my bag and find my shoulders most often pulled up to chin while bracing the cold.  Needless to say I prefer to hibernate and the lack of daylight only encourages this unsociable practice of mine.  I also love the nod to Seasonal Affective Disorder in the article.  (I finally bought a light therapy lamp this year.)

So, while you are waiting with me for warm days that seem so far away, read the article from the Times, join me and find your voice and your outlet: writing, painting, cooking, reading.  Winter is the most acceptable excuse to stay in with some kind of delicious beverage and get lost indoors.

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.  

This year’s winter.

First,  I have been in discussion with one of my best friends who also happens to be a teacher about how we always think of the “new year” starting in September. We realized that the main way we identify ourselves is through our job, which in many ways is great: teaching English combines so many of my passions.  It is generally hard for me to do a year reflection, because since I’ve never left the school calendar since infancy, January to me is the end of the first semester…the half way point.  It feels strange to think about 2011 because I had two different groups of students.  I had two different curriculum plans.  But. This is only if I look at my life solely through my profession.
Second, I caught myself spreading my winter blues this morning.  I’ve written before about my how my college roommate and I diagnosed me with Seasonal Affective Disorder online in 2001 and about how spring-forward is my favorite day of the year.  I’ve probably even written about how I blame the school calendars of my youth who had flowers decorating the month of March (obviously made by a southerner) for the way my heart starts to get prematurely hopeful for warmer weather.  However, my personal-not-job-related goal for 2012 (the first fourth of it, anyway) is to have a better attitude about the winter.  There. I said it. Please, if you see me, remind me of this.  
Another dear friend sent me an essay from a book called Let Your Life Speak many winters ago about living through the seasons as a polite way of telling me to get a better attitude.  I return to it every year.  It tells me: “Winter is a demanding season…and yet the rigors are accompanied by gifts: …times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things…One gift of utter clarity as in winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque and see the trees clearly…Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.”  Another friend of mine moved to San Diego from New York and told me that perfection can breed complacency.  
So, I would like to live thankfully and intentionally this winter.  I realized the other day that I never posted about Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids (which would have definitely made it onto the Top Ten).  I reread my notes inside and what I found has a direct correlation with how I want to live in this cold season: 
“…it was the work in a hall devoted to Picasso…that pierced me the most.  His brutal confidence took my breath away.” (11)  “I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself…Picasso didn’t crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed.  He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people. When I had extra money I’d go to the Museum of Modern Art and sit before Guernica, spending long hours considering the fallen horse and the eye of the bulb shining over the sad spoils of war. Then I’d get back to work.” (65)
“But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings could create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.” (11)
“He [Robert Maplethorpe] contained, even at an early age, a stirring and the desire to stir,” (13)
I want to stare winter down.   If it makes me angry, I want to do let that anger inspire writing.  Or to fight against it with dinner parties.  Or crawling out of my hole and stepping outside for a run with my friends and then feel as though I have thoroughly kicked it in the rear.  I want it to inspire me to actually live rather than hunkering down with Netflix instant streaming. I want to sense a stirring and stir.

this is not about books, but. winter made me smile. a few times. and that doesn’t happen often.

A small child with a bowl cut running around an uncrowded East Village restaurant in full body snow pants. Also, the yellow walls and good people I was talking to there.

Multiple, separate, grown men who ran their fingers through untouched snow on a ledge in Midtown.

Bowery almost completely quiet in a snowstorm.

Eating fistfulls (yes, plural) of snow as I made my way home 8th Avenue in Park Slope. Because it was coming down so fast and I trusted there were no pollutants.  And it reminded me of Ohio snow.  And I liked it.

Hearing my landlord shovel the sidewalk and remembering all of the 6 am wake up calls my brother and I had to clear our driveway, whether we had a snow day or not.  Then rolling over and being thankful I didn’t have to shovel today.

Prospect Park+over a foot of new snow+children sledding everywhere+evening light (albeit at 5 pm).  LOVE.

And, my students’ artwork in response to “Do Not Go Gentle” by Dylan Thomas. It makes my room so bright I can barely contain myself.