Spring Talking

The other day the sun was out and I took a walk. I only got so far as crossing the street and then there were crowds of crocuses standing brazenly in the grass, as if they’d always been there and we’d all just forgot to look at them. They were the big purple kind which I’d never seen till I moved here and which always make me catch my breath. But they also made me think of the ones I grew up with, the sacred first sign of spring—small, delicate, and canary yellow—peeking up around the corners of the grey slate paving stones which lead up to my parents’ blue side porch.

Then I took myself all the way down Yew Street to Kits Beach.

The evening after I took that walk (or maybe it was the next evening altogether) I read two chapters of Wind in the Willows aloud to my housemates (the first and fifth because those are the best ones). I made it through Chapter Five without crying, but just barely. The little monologue in which Mole explains to Rat how he had wanted to stop and go back to see his little home, but his friend hadn’t listened to him, is really rather raw (more raw than last time I read it, at least). That “spirit of divine discontent and longing” that Kenneth Grahame talks about has come early for me this year.

I’m homesick. I’m homesick for America and for road trips and for new jeans and high heels and for friends’ couches and for Pilot Mountain and for fresh tacos and for laughter and quiet and Yeats’ bee-loud glade. I’m homesick for what was and for what’s next. I’m homesick for Lord-only-knows-what. 

Only the Lord may know for now, but when I do see it, like the crocuses, then I’m sure I’ll know it. I’ll be like Mole coming upon Rat’s little boat, Mole whose “whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.” 

Shared Books and Belonging

Ever since I was a kid, whenever I read a book and love it, just really love it, I have a hard time comprehending that anyone else has ever read it too. There has always been something about a good story, especially when I was young and starry-eyed and consuming two or three books at a time on long summer days, that made me believe the magic of it could only be for me. It belonged to me and I belonged to it—we existed together, eternally solitary and melancholically happy. In some ways, the last twenty years of my life have simply been the journey of unlearning that, of coming to understand that, just maybe, other people might know and love the things that I know and love. Perhaps they even knew and loved them first.

This revelation that it is possible for others to read what I have read and experience it in a similar way has been a surprising discovery, but overall a happy one. It has, in fact, given rise to one of my more dangerous habits: book-lending. I habitually lend out books and, for obvious reasons, they’re usually my favorite ones. A bit perilous, but, as my dad always used to say, “Ships in a harbor are safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” True, he didn’t usually use the metaphor to refer to mold-speckled paperbacks, but I digress…

I’ve lent out more books than usual in the past few months. I only have a portion of my library here in Vancouver, but still I’ve found myself handing out much-loved volumes, first to housemates, but more recently to other friends as well. It’s been everything from The Thief Lord to True Grit, either of which has the power to make you fall back in love with fiction.

And I myself have been re-reading books fit for sharing. Gradually, beginning back in the Spring, it was the Narnia books. Many people I know are familiar with them and have read them multiple times themselves, so there is a peculiar joy in being able to casually mention to a friend that Uncle Andrew is just the worst, and have them know precisely what I mean, even though strictly speaking Uncle Andrew has never existed. This sharing of the story increases its joy and somehow even its truth.

In the last couple weeks, I’ve also been re-reading the Mennyms books. I suspect you haven’t heard of them (though if you have please get in touch immediately). They are a quiet English children’s series about a very unusual family simply doing their best to live a normal life but finding the task difficult. I think of these books often, I talk about them often, I aspire to have something of their essence in my own fiction, but I hadn’t re-read them since college, and they’re even more extraordinary than I remember. 

They are stories about loneliness and otherness but also about what it means to be human and the devastating adventure of mere existence. They can be a little bleak and existential for children’s books, I realize now, but children themselves can be a little bleak and existential. And the books do ultimately contain plenty of hope, and not of the flimsy kind. Really, they are stories of unobtrusive, everyday perseverance in the face of unalterable limitations, of tough perennial joy in the midst of permanent uncertainty. They are strange books, and precious ones.

As I reread the series with all the venerable wisdom of my twenty-eight years, I realized that, unusually for me, I couldn’t remember the first time I encountered it. I couldn’t remember what chair I curled up in, what my pet worries and fears were at the time, even how old I was—somewhere between nine and twelve most likely. But I am now sure that from the first, even if I didn’t realize it, the Mennyms spoke to something which lived deep in me, which still lives in me, and I think always will: a keen, noiseless, unquenchable desire for belonging. And through a set of stories in which, ridiculously, a blue rag doll is the most moving character, I began to understand, am still years later beginning to understand, that an identically wrenching desire for kinship exists in the heart of every person I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Perhaps this is why I can read a book and you can read the same book, and together we can love it. Together, we can belong to it.

Repeating Wonders and New Mercies

Because it’s practically summer and there’s still a pandemic on and I’m an adult and I can do what I want, I’ve been rereading old favorites lately. I may eventually wend my way around to some Laura Ingalls Wilder or P.G. Wodehouse (one of my more worthwhile middle school obsessions) but recently it’s been Flannery O’Connor and the Narnia books.

My grandma too used to reread her favorite books over and over, aloud to my grandpa and aunt in the evenings. She always spoke about it as if doing so were a bit of guilty pleasure, as if she knew she should stretch herself with something new, but Emmy Keeps a Promise was just so comforting and reliable, with its stories of boarding houses and clams. And rereading is a comfort. I picked Narnia up on purpose because I was searching for comfort, for a bit of stability, for a well-trod path. 

But though many of the things I’ve been reading lately are familiar, though at certain points in my life I’ve been known to corner people and monologue in my enthusiasm for both Voyage of the Dawn Treader and O’Connor’s “Revelation,” I find on rereading that though I thought I’d already analysed them to the hilt, their deep roots and truth are alternately knocking me upside the head and stealing softly into the echoing, aching cavity of my chest all over again.

I used to think this sort of thing was just a process of something hitting me differently than before or on a deeper level, but I don’t think that’s always the case. Sometimes the same thing is hitting me on the exact same level. I am Eustace dragoned and undragoned, and I am part of Mrs. Turpin’s beatific procession into the sky. It was this way last time and it will be this way again. Everything strikes me fresh, though I remember it striking me fresh before. I am, it would seem, in a constant cycle of forgetting and being reminded.

My first temptation upon realizing this is to chastise myself for forgetting. To tell myself to learn better this time, to please actually retain and apply this knowledge, for goodness sake! But I have quietly begun to suspect that this is not the best approach. I have begun to suspect that on a certain level I was made for this cycle of amnesia and wonder. The Lord intends us to have to keep coming back and beginning again, over and over. It is one of the ways that he teaches us to become like little children. As Chesterton wrote, “We die daily. We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics.” 

We are so often concerned with decency and propriety and progress in ourselves and in others, when instead what is on offer is the promise of messy, glorious rebirth, a rebirth which, spurred by a children’s book, a simple meal, a passing comment from a friend, may happen almost hourly. His mercies will, in fact, be new over and over and over. This, apparently, is the life our good and full-of-mirth God means for us to have. 

And every spring we get to look up into the trees through the new leaves and relearn green as if we never knew it before. Every time.

In Praise of (Good) Fiction

I’ve been thinking. (Dangerous.) I’ve been thinking about fiction because I’ve been trying to read a little more of it lately and soon I plan to be writing quite a bit of it. And in doing so, it’s become apparent to me that I have strong opinions about what is and what isn’t really good story-telling–perhaps to an extent that catches people around me off-guard. Sometimes, in the midst of conversation, I back myself into a corner and find myself having to explain why it is that I have just announced my disdain for much of the fiction of Wendell Berry or Marilynne Robinson, but that I do love The Mennyms and Decline and Fall and Invisible Man and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and True Grit.

There are very few things that will make me drop all pretense of being an agreeable person and begin saying foolhardy things than just getting me started on literature, most particularly getting me started on whether a story is a good one. Though the particulars of things are my bread and butter and I fully believe that only through particulars are we able to touch upon the universal, etc., etc., it might do me good to take a bit of a step back and look at the whole forest of the fiction that I love and try to understand its commonalities. What makes stories commonly good?

 

Well, I know that every really transcendent piece of fiction I’ve ever read is somehow completely unselfconscious. It is open to being read, but it does not need a reader. One gets the sense at times with a particularly strong story that even the action of the writer was incidental to its existence. It is an organic thing with beating heart and restless limbs which has always been existing at its own frenetic pace in its own universe and history with its own people and noise. 

Because of this, really good fiction is focused on its own story-ness and does not secretly wish it were a sermon or a poem. It knows that we do not live our lives in the form of philosophical treatises or expositional texts, but that life, in its rawest most incomprehensible form, is story, with beginning, middle, rising actions, characters, complications, and denouements, most of which are not recognizable when we are in their midst. Life does not pander to us and offer us reassuring explanations for its eccentricities, so good fiction reflects this in the way it drags us full steam ahead into the bright and blinding wilderness of its characters and happenings. Flannery O’Connor said that good fiction writers get dusty while doing their work. Well, I think the rest of us also get dusty while reading it.

We know we have loved a book and, perhaps more to the point, been loved by it, when we walk away from the last page changed, feeling as if our organs have been rearranged, as we’ve fallen in love, moved away from home and back again, jumped off a cliff only to be caught by the wind. But though we just spent all those hours with words, and they are the tools which have communicated the torture and salvation to us, they will somehow not suffice to explain the wonder of what we’ve experienced. Perhaps such a wonder is not possible to explain at all.

In reading, we have been allowed a glimpse at something–a world, a people, a home, a pain–which may be even real-er than we are. And this is a great mystery to me: the best stories I have read feel like secrets. I know that Jane Eyre is a classic and has been read and loved and dissected and devoured and regurgitated by millions. I’ve had my share of conversations about it and even used it as a discussion example when I taught history to teenagers, and yet I am sure no one has entered it like I have, loved it like I have. The ageless, hungry little reader inside me will never actually believe that it is not her own private treasure in the same way that she will never quite believe that Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye is not her personal friend. It is that unaccountably real to me. So not only is good fiction’s realness to us inexplicable (after all, we know that it’s fiction), but its real-ness and frequent intimate proximity to our own hearts and deepest concerns make the best fiction literally inexplicable. Our favorite stories are beyond explanation: they heroically resist it, even (Lord preserve us) in high school English classes.

Good fiction matters because when we read it and then set the book down at the end and attempt to walk away from it, we find that we cannot. The story will follow. We have walked into another world and lived there, and now we stumble back into our world to live here, with the extra appendage we have gained dragging along behind us, making us weightier, older, more.

 

So those are my justifications for my occasional outbursts about story, for the moments when I say indefensible things like, “I just don’t think that’s the way to write fiction.” I am so aware of fiction’s wondrous and frightening power to change everything about us. Some books seem to change the density of our bones and course of the blood in our veins. But ultimately, I can’t tell you or myself or anyone what makes good fiction what it is. It’s ineffable. Good fiction, like beauty, is its own answer. 

Soon (now this makes me shiver a bit to write) I will be writing fiction for my final project, hopefully good fiction, but for now I’m writing this. And I have not been happy with the last few entries I’ve written here, which has gotten under my skin. What I’ve had to say has been fine, but I know I have not hung back long enough before publishing to play with the words, to take joy. It is all kinds of writing that we need to get dusty. And even as I write these short blog entries, I must be willing not only to stop and play in the dust, but to simply wait in it, in the grubby, glinting caves of my own little life, in deflated vowels and unwieldy consonants. I must wait unselfconsciously, with no particular agenda in mind but the offering of praise.

Last Wednesday after dinner we went for a walk across a field in ankle-deep snow under a multichrome sky. I toyed with the idea of writing to tell you about it, but, like I said, beauty is its own reward. Not all poems have to be written if they have been lived.

Limits

On Friday morning, I walked from Regent in spitting, non-committal Vancouver rain over to VST, another theology school attached to UBC. I had strained some previously anonymous muscle in the back of my knee the day before and was trying to baby it, but there was work for my research assistant job to catch up on and this library had a couple of books I wanted to see. So, trying heroically neither to feel sorry for myself nor to limp, I went. 

When I arrived, umbrella-less and therefore damp, I found that the library itself was tiny, tucked away, no bigger than a single public school classroom, and boasted a total of, I think, six study carrels. Despite the size I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and when I asked the librarian for help she told me that the items I wanted were in storage, and eagerly put up an apologetic sign at the diminutive circulation desk, pulled on her coat, and headed off to some mysterious other building. I sat and waited in the stillness which breathed back and forth between grey walls and a carpet I now can’t remember the color of. I felt a bit faint and tired (for interested parties, I had eaten breakfast) but also warm and content in this room with shelves so short and unimposing that I could see over all of them and out the opposite window from where I sat. When my new friend returned, she had brought me more than I asked for. This trend continued over the next few minutes as I began to read and the pile of books beside me grew, through no effort of my own. I dwindled and dawdled there for a while.

It occurs to me that my favorite spaces recently (or maybe always) have been small ones. I think of the RCSA office on the lower level at Regent, which is little more than a glorified closet, but a closet with a place to hang my coat, to make tea, with lamps that turn on with a satisfying click, and a couch where I can plant myself. I think also of my little front bedroom here on Yew St., almost always a mess, and full of a mishmash of my own things (dresses, pens, maps, a poster from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia) and the things that lived here long before my time (beaded baskets, expired passports, a stuffed Pooh Bear, a green paperback Canterbury Tales.) And I think of the first small space I ever loved, of perhaps the first wonder I was ever conscious of feeling: the tiny layered world contained between the covers of a book. How is it that a whole wide cosmos, big enough to get lost in, can fit into my right hand?

I’m waxing poetic because I read a novel today. Thank God for Sunday.

The Souls of Things

I am home this week in the quiet and the soft, sticky heat of my parents’ house, and I have just been sorting through books. Box after box, cover after cover, my hands built up a bit of a residue with all the handling and I went reluctantly to wash them. There is nothing, but nothing, which makes me so simultaneously grateful and able to write as simply touching a whole lot of my own books. As I flick the pages they release their ghosts so quickly that the room is full in a matter of minutes. Ghosts of characters, of authors, of friends, family, teachers, of myself as a child, and, wildly and nonsensically, the ghosts of all of us in some eternal future. For these words, printed and dusty and sometimes crumbling, are already pumping through the veins of many of us, pushing us on to somewhere else.

One of them is a book I was assigned to read in undergrad. It’s by a man named Vigen Guroian and it’s called Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening. I can think of about twenty-five different people at Regent who would devour it in one sitting if they haven’t already. In fact I was startled by the number of books I was setting aside to take back to Vancouver, not because I love them, but because I know someone else would.

On Thursday night, as I waited in the Vancouver airport curled in a chair looking back out over the darkening city, I felt an unfamiliar ache realizing that though I’d only be gone for about three weeks, there were people in that place whom I would miss. And as our plane lowered itself through North Carolina’s clouds the next morning I looked down at the green and the trees and began to cry because I loved them so much, because though practically speaking they grow in clay and soil, they also somehow grow in me.

I’m getting soft in my old age. Or that’s what I thought. And then came today and the boxes of books, and I was reminded that it’s always been such. I was made soft, I think. I can pretend that I am not sentimental, that I operate efficiently and practically, up until something in my soul stubs its toe on or wraps its little finger around a tangible object in some concrete place, and then I’m toast. When I left Caldwell last year, I did not cry on the last day of school, but when, a week later, I realized that a stack of precious final assignments from past students had been inadvertently thrown out in my classroom, I drove to school in a flood of tears at nine pm, to see if I could get to the trash before the cleaning crew did. And I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a series of poems about my grandparents and though they are certainly written in memory of them, to my surprise much of what I wrote is actually about their house, their driveway, their dry summer grass.

It’s things that always get me, I suppose because I feel a kinship with their frailty. They were made with high hopes of being some use, imbued with sacred meaning and purpose, whether small like a safety pin or large like my mother’s PhD dissertation. Perhaps they were loved and valued, and perhaps they show marks of it, but inevitably, eventually, they also show marks of time and age and general thing-ly weariness. And when I was sorting books today the weariness of so many of those cracked spines made their mysterious secrets leak out in glistening dust onto my palms. Because a thing cannot spend too long in the human world, in the flickering shadow of the divine image, without becoming just a bit eternal.

Empowerment, Selfishness, and Loneliness

We live in funny times. Several years ago I was in a school library when an older woman came in, and I overheard her adamantly announce to the librarian that she wanted to donate books with a specific message: empowerment for women. I remember thinking that books with a “message” sounded boring. Who would read them?

But I must have been wrong, because the narrative has grown and become ingrained. We’ve been told to break the last of the ties that bind us, to have it all, to say yes, to say no, to change the world, to lean in. We’ve been told that we can. And, of course, because we can we should.

We do not need anyone else but ourselves to succeed, because You is kind, you is smart, you is important. Follow your heart and go with your gut. And so, wherever we are and whatever we want, we are true to ourselves, following the dubious wisdom of a Shakespearean lord who gets murdered through a curtain. We dig deep, find hidden reserves, and realize that we’re capable of much more than we ever knew. On our own strength, which is at times considerable, we rise.

We’re not cruel, of course. We don’t step on others’ faces as we climb past them—we’re not willing for their heads to bruise our heels—but we do leave them behind. This is our journey, not theirs, this journey further up and further out, where no one has ever been before. We’re not making decisions based on what others want anymore—we’re basing our decisions on what we want! This makes us feel powerful. We begin to glow.

And then one day we wake up to find ourselves alone. Even if the dream we were chasing was in service of others, we have not wanted to rely on their help to get there. To accept, or—God forbid—ask for help would have disproved all the stories we’re only just now managing to believe about our own capability. So it is just us here now. To be our brother or sister’s keeper would have gotten in the way of our hard-won self-sufficiency. Particularly when some brother or sister is not particularly kind or smart we have been trained, in self-preservation, to ignore the fact that they are still painfully, wretchedly important.

We’ve cut ourselves off and, in doing so, imbued ourselves with a loneliness that feels nearly impossible to recover from. It’s not just lonely at the top—it’s lonely to be a human with skin on. Hollywood makes movies about this. We are empowered, sure. But to reduce ourselves to bundles of self-made desires and shining abilities to fulfill those desires is just another funny roundabout way to dehumanization. Our deepest level of personhood does not exist in self-reliance, but in belonging.

I’ve made more generalities here than I know what to do with, and they’re all centrally based on the only subject I really have for study: myself. I’m thinking mainly about women because I am a woman, and I’m thinking mainly about millennials because, for better or for worse, I’m one of those too. But as usual, my driving purpose in writing all this is much the same as Ralph Ellison’s, something which is both a fear and a hope, cautious and bold: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Old Loves and Magic

The other night I finished re-reading the fourth Harry Potter book, and I realized my heart was racing. I felt warm and sad.

I’d forgotten how much I love children’s books, which is funny because I have shelves full of them. I read them when I was a kid, and continued to read them unashamedly through middle and high school. They weren’t the only things I read, but clear, sweet stories of adventure meant for audiences with the most wide-open minds were always my first love. I wrote my high school senior thesis on happy endings in children’s lit, and returned to my favorites during summers in college to be reminded and rejoice.

But I don’t read quite as much anymore (though I’m trying to make up the deficit this summer), and when I do I feel duty-bound to plow through grown-up books, to check them off my list, so that I will be improved.

For example, I’m about to force my way through the end of Brothers Karamozov, which was recommended to me over and over with great sincerity and enthusiasm by quite a few people whose opinions I respect. However, the novel has sat next to my bed for a very long time, containing three separate bookmarks which represent more than a year and half of teeth-gritted effort. This is not to say that I think that Dostoyevsky is too smart or difficult for me, or that it is not a wonderful novel, or even that I won’t enjoy it someday. I’m just saying that right about now, I am not loving it as it ought to be loved.

I must face facts I have forgotten: I do sometimes get that lifted, warm-and-sad feeling when I finish a book for adults, but I get it so much more often with kids’ books. When you write for children, there is no need to be obtuse, because children are not shy about the truth. It will not startle them coming round the corner as it does many adults. The best children’s books treat good like good, bad like evil, and mystery as if it is something wonderful to revel in. But I can’t really explain–stories have to be experienced.

Grown-up literary novels are written by people who expect, for better or for worse, to have what they have written discussed and pondered and considered, and perhaps, on a sunny day, enjoyed. But a good children’s novel is meant to be fallen into, to be put on like a garment,  because that’s what kids do with the things they love.

On my fridge is a little slip of paper in my fourth grade handwriting. It looks like this:

Council of Galadriel

A written explanation of the inner workings of this girl-power-on-the-grammar-school-playground circa 2001 version of Tolkien’s masterpieces would not be worth the space it would take up on the page. But suffice to say, when I look at this little list now, more than fifteen years later, I have two reactions, both of which make me smile.

First: Only one of the girls listed had even a small working knowledge of what the novels actually contained or who any of these characters really were (and she was not me), but we understood magic, that these names with all their solemn vowels could be portals to some greater world, and we wanted in to that place.

And second: That magic naturally fit and even characterized a childhood friendship which would become the foundation of something which has so far proved to be enduring. Of the three other girls on the list one just moved out of my apartment, one just moved in, and the third is moving back to Greensboro with her husband at long last later this month. And if you mention a good story to any of us grown women, we will glow. We loved magic then, and in a different, deeper ways, through years of practice, we love it now.

So shame on me for neglecting the stories which first taught me so much. Maybe next time someone acts surprised that I’ve never read whatever adult classic changed their life, I will write down the title, but then, if I am feeling brave, I will recommend right back at them one of the books which changed mine.

Maybe, in good time, I will become my grandma as I remember her, repeatedly confessing with only a very little bit of regret that as she got older she would merely re-read the her same favorite books over and over, because “they were just so good!” It is well for each of us to find stories in our own heart’s language.

Note: This entry from 2012 contains recommendations of some long-held children’s favorites, all of which I still stand by wholeheartedly, if you’re willing to stomach my sometimes stilted and flowery descriptions.

Reading, Writing, and Living

I finished two books over Thanksgiving break. One of them I started way back in August, but that’s neither here nor there. Both were strongly recommended to me by teacher-friends and roughly the size of bricks: East of Eden and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I finished the first on the three-and-a-half hour drive from a Minneapolis airport hotel up to my uncle’s camp, way north of Duluth. Although there were parts that made me feel cold and unsure, the last quarter of that book made me warm. It’s a story about overcoming evil, but wonderful and frightening: it’s about overcoming evil within ourselves, about the ultimate powerlessness of sin in the face of mercy. So I liked that.

And then, three days later, on the drive back down to the airport, I finished Owen Meany. Or rather, I meant to, but the lead up to the final scene that I knew was coming got me more and more worked up and, although I never get car-sick, I began to feel nauseated and laid the book down on my lap. I sat crushed in the backseat of the little rental car with my aunt and my brother and looked out the window at Minnesota’s shades of white and grey and wondered when reading had become such a harrowing experience.

When I was a kid, reading was like breathing–I did it inside, outside, on my bed, on the couch, on the floor, in the bathroom, under the table. But even as a child I knew there was a limit, that there was such a thing as too much. Once, when I was probably nine or ten, I read four books in one day, and each time my mother or some other demanding force pulled me to the surface, I came up for air snarling and unhappy. I was so deeply immersed that the world of my books seemed more real than the world around me. From that day on, I judiciously set myself a “no more than three books a day” rule (which now, as an adult with access to Netflix, I have no trouble sticking to.)

But the way I felt last Monday, driving to the airport with Owen Meany in my lap, reminded me of that four-book day. I knew how the story was going to end–each detail of the last scene was painstakingly, loudly foreshadowed and even explained. But I was drowning in it. Eventually we got to the airport, and before even going through security, I bought a bottle of orange juice, sat down, and read the last fifteen pages or so, through the ending that I had been both anticipating and dreading. My stomach still felt queasy. “You don’t read enough.” I told myself over and over. “You’re just not used to this kind of emotional involvement anymore.” The TSA officer who checked my boarding pass told me to smile, and I gripped the novel through my purse, wanting to slam it into his face, notify him of what I was experiencing.

Finally, a few hours later, just before landing in Midway on a very crowded plane, I wrote a poem. I have been writing one every Monday for the last few months, so I figured that though I still felt awful and also unsure of where the barf bags were, I would go ahead and get it done. It began as a poem telling God what it was that I needed at this dreadfully harrowing emotional moment in my life and then, a brief two stanzas later, it ended with him telling me that he already knew. Oh. He knew.

I put my notebook away and felt warm and comforted and, for the first time all day, hungry. Writing gave me instant relief. Input and output: the novel had run right through me, been let out at the end by my poem, and I was clean and new, like a glass pipette.

I’ve been thinking about all that this week, coming up with morals and conclusions about the ultimate purpose of the story-telling and the written word and self-expression, both our own and other people’s. But I keep getting stumped on one thing: what about living? What about real experience? What about each second that ticks and each movement of our hands that never gets recorded or even remembered, but still is the thing which shapes us most intently, wears the grooves into our souls?

That Friday, while helping my mom with our belated Thanksgiving dinner, I sat at the counter in my aunt’s kitchen making rolls. I tasted a corner of the dough, and the soft tang of the yeast brought me an overwhelming sense of missing. The recipe is a family friend’s, passed down by my grandma, but the person those rolls made me miss was my sister far away in London. She is the one to make them every year in our house, to turn up the music in the kitchen, to roll them out, to crowd them in that pan, to pack away the leftovers, to eat and eat them for days after the holiday. I was doing a shoddy, lumpy job compared to her.

Later that evening, we sat in the living and sang Thanksgiving hymns (which several family members claimed to know very few of) and I again thought of Mary, who knows all the words, all the notes on piano, who loves to sing along, and loud. I slipped out of my seat, sat halfway down the basement stairs and cried.

In the actual living of our lives, feelings of missing and longing and love and assurance and doubt rope their way around our hearts and are not dealt with by the writing of one poem, or by the writing of twenty, I would guess. But he knows, God already knows. And he “keeps us with repining restlessness.”

Our hearts are restless till they rest in You.

Lessons from Cinderella and Jake Barnes

I’ve watched a lot of movies since the beginning of college–most of them alone, on a computer screen. I like watching things this way. I feel free to criticize or adore whenever and however I want. I get to watch on my terms. Funnily enough though, when I give myself that choice I almost always choose criticism. I’ve gotten in the habit of quietly dissecting and improving and making-over most everything I watch. But last weekend I went and saw the new, live-action Cinderella with my family. I put my feet up on the empty theater seat in front of me, and let the whole thing carry me away.

It’s a beautiful movie shot in all the color you could wish for and told with complete openness. It looks at grief and joy and meanness and hope and tells each bit as straight as it can. I loved the end: when Cinderella is found because the sound of her voice carries out the open window and her unasked-for forgiveness makes her stepmother sink down and lean against the banister of the stairs with the weight of it. But I think the moment I loved the most was when Cinderella walks into the ball. She has arrived a bit too late for comfort, and she comes down the stairs by herself, with no one to announce her. Strangely, what was most evident to me was not that she is beautiful or hoping to find Kit, but that she is walking into a room alone. I have walked into a room alone, you have walked into a room alone–some days it is the bravest thing that we do. She descends with all eyes on her: nameless to all of them and probably already loathed by every woman in the room. Step by step she approaches the bottom of the stairs, and she has no idea what will happen when she gets there.

Then, late this past Monday night, I found myself on a little mental jag, when I should have been going to sleep. I lay in bed and thought about Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises: where he begins, and where he goes, and, most of all, where he ends up. He pines over Brett, letting his own physical inability to have her smash the side of his face down in the dirt and pummel him with punches again and again. He lets his wounds, real and imaginary, take him over and he throws away his self-respect and his aficion for bullfighting by letting Brett have, and ruin, the hopeful young Romero. But that’s not the way he ends: after everything that happens in Pamplona he literally goes into the sea alone, washes, and comes out clean.

And that’s when I thought of it: Jake’s like Cinderella. Perhaps this is silly and those of you who love Hemingway or fairy tales more fully than I do are looking askance, but let me try to explain.

When Brett sends for Jake, he signs the wire with love and loyally goes, but somehow he has unhooked her from his soul: he eats more than he drinks as they have lunch together, and the last image of the book–the raising of the policeman’s baton–means that Jake is willing to seek manhood and courage and meaning wherever he may have them, and lay the wounds of war and love to rest. This is him walking into the room alone, perilously free of the self-pity and self-sabotage he has had to protect him for so long.

All the good stories tell the same truths (this is why I love literature) and the principles which motivate Jake and Cinderella at their best are very near to one another. Though community and closeness and hands that hold onto yours are very important, there are things that can really only be learned alone. To walk into the room, to “have courage,” to “be kind,” to “get to know the values”: these are ultimately acts chosen by, and affecting, the individual soul.

As I have been thinking about this I keep remembering that this sort of independent bravery is  what I want for my students. The ones of whom I’m the most proud are the ones who are able to love their classmates without being swayed by them, who have found their own feet and are learning to stand on them: to walk down the steps, to raise whatever baton they’ve got.

But then I laugh, because really, who am I kidding? If I am telling the whole truth, I must admit that this freedom is what I want for myself–not to follow the scents and sights around me but instead, to be prepared to be separate, to be new and be different, to transform instead of conform. I want to be willing to find goodness and meaning outside of where the world has told me it must lie, and, though strange eyes may look on, to allow myself to be cut from a different cloth.