Stranger Things, Oxen, and Love

“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.” –Walt Whitman–

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of reading on my blog. In fact, I’ve devoted entire posts (here and here) to the importance of picking up a book and reading it. So when I came across this Whitman quote, I thought it would be a good one for me to tackle — if nothing else, to challenge my own thinking.

And even though I have (very) strong feelings about reading (lots and lots of) books, Whitman’s sentiment immediately resonates with me.

Because Whitman is talking about being human. He acknowledges that there is something elusive about being human that cannot be captured in words. We can try to capture the human (and we definitely do try), but I firmly believe that there is no way to accurately depict all of the nuances and complexities that make us human.

So in this game of “Capture the Human,” we’re losers.

There does not exist a book or even a poem that can get to the essence of expression in our eyes.

Cut to the scene from Stranger Things 3 when Erica is crawling through the air ducts with her flashlight headgear and My Little Pony backpack to find the secret Russian elevator.

(Spoiler: Erica does indeed find the secret Russian elevator.)

But I don’t think we’re quite as competent as Erica when it comes to crawling through the duct-work of human emotion.

Oddly, Whitman expresses a profound truth here using “print.” But he’s reminding us that while words help in this life, they are not the answer. And while Erica does actually find the elevator, she and her buddies realize that the elevator leads to even more questions.

Well isn’t that true of life and human emotion. We get to a point where we think we’ve figured out [insert human emotion here] only to realize that it’s simply a secret Russian elevator that leads us somewhere else where there are even more questions to be answered and even more mysteries to be solved.

Are you starting to feel the futility here?

Or are you starting to feel the excitement of the mystery?

Even though we probably feel the former sometimes, hopefully most times we feel the latter. Life is ultimately a mystery. We can plan and write and read and discover and think and discuss and work and play. But at the end of the day, Robert Burns states the tough truth in his poem “To a Mouse”:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

          Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

          For promis’d joy!

In other words, even the best plans can go awry and lead to grief and pain.

Well that sucks. But imagine how predictable life would be if we could predict what life would be.

Let’s explore the “more” Whitman references. What is the “more” expressed in our eyes? What is the “more” that cannot be explained in words? Now if you find Whitman’s sentence in context (find his excerpt from Leaves of Grass here), you’ll see that he’s actually talking about an ox’s eyes. I don’t know about your interest in oxen, but I actually have very little. Close to none, actually. Well, maybe none at all. But I think Whitman is certainly not limiting his commentary to oxen. The idea of eyes expressing more than print goes beyond oxen.

And this is where I take the leap from oxen . . .

to love.

Tomorrow marks 15 years being married to my husband. How I wish I could put into words the way I feel towards him. (I’ve tried writing love poetry and failed. MISERABLY.) As for capturing emotion in words, he’s much better. While we were still dating, we had to spend one (LONG) summer away from each other. Both working at summer camps — me: in the Redwoods of California, him: in the lakes and trails of Wisconsin — we stayed busy and happy, but we each experienced an emptiness that only the other could fill. We called when we could (not often). We wrote letters. I didn’t write as often as I would have liked. But my husband? He wrote me a letter every single day. Never was there a day at camp that I did not receive mail. I hung on to his words. They were my lifeline — keeping me safely tethered to my love.

But when camp ended and everything was packed up and we headed back to college for our junior year and I saw him . . .

No words could express the way I felt looking into his eyes. Somehow in those few seconds of looking into his eyes there was more than all the words in all the letters.

So maybe Whitman is talking about oxen. But the beauty of literature is that when we read it, we bring with us our life experiences, our opinions, our biases, and our needs. Who’s to say farmers don’t resonate with there being “more than all the print” in the ox’s eyes? And while I don’t necessarily think of my husband as an ox, when I read Whitman’s words, they are about emotion. And the most mysterious of all human emotions in my mind is love.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to write a love poem to my husband (I don’t have the audacity to predict), but for now, a Pablo Neruda poem will suffice (to an extent, that is):

Of everything I have seen, 

it’s you I want to go on seeing: 

of everything I’ve touched, 

it’s your flesh I want to go on touching. 

I love your orange laughter. 

I am moved by the sight of you sleeping. 

What am I to do, love, loved one? 

I don’t know how others love 

or how people loved in the past. 

I live, watching you, loving you. 

Being in love is my nature.

Life, love, and all human emotion — there is a mystery here that is unsolvable. And while we gobble up all the self-help books, frantically search for the algorithm of love, and read poetry for all the rest, there will always be more. (Notice that there is no link for that one.)

And I’m so glad. I’ve had 15 years of love. 15 years of growing and changing. 15 years of learning. 15 years of living life with my favorite human. I feel like I know the guy pretty well. But the fact that there’s more?

What an incredible gift.

So maybe (for once) put the book down, and look someone you care about in the eyes. Linger. Allow for vulnerability. Allow for love.

To my husband: I adore you. Words can’t express it.

But I’ll keep trying anyway. (And thank you for always reading what I have to say — even if you might be the only one.)

I look forward to there always being more with you.

Happy anniversary, my love.

Stuff! And Other Foibles.

“The seashore teemed with no weeds, no crabs, no crayfish, no coral, no pebbles, no rocks.” –Yann Martel, Life of Pi

I finally read Life of Pi. (Interesting side-note: The novel was published on September 11, 2001.) While not my favorite, I did quite enjoy it. When I came across this sentence, I had to do a double-take. How can a seashore teem with . . . nothing? I was immediately drawn to the paradoxical statement. And the sentence proceeds to list six different objects that aren’t there. With a “no” in front of each object, the effect on the reader is overwhelming. With the absence of a coordinating conjunction between the objects (asyndeton, for the Literary Prude English Teachers of America), the six objects overwhelm, yes, but also come at the reader like rapid fire.

So why does Martel want to overwhelm us with loss? And as a fiction writer, why draw attention to what is not in the scene? How do we write using good imagery when we’re not describing what’s actually in the scene? Well, I don’t think Martel is concerned as much with imagery as he is with emotional reaction. In this particular scene, a storm has just blown through the island, taking most everything with it. Perhaps Martel wanted to emphasize the effect of losing everything? And to a seashore, losing things like weeds, crabs, crayfish, coral, pebbles, and rocks might seem like everything.

How might the seashore be feeling about this loss?

Without seeming indifferent to environmental issues, I’m not particularly compelled by the idea of a seashore temporarily losing these things. I am, however, quite compelled by the idea of how this sentence applies to us. When storms blow through our lives and leave us with nothing, how are we still teeming? What does it mean? Is it healthy? Good? Bad?

Read any self-help literature these days, and it’s teeming with tips on how to minimize our lives. I did a quick search on Goodreads using the word “minimal,” and 100 pages of results came back. Minimalism as a way of life is quite popular. I’d like to say that I adhere to the philosophy (on a very small scale) in my own home. I purge on a regular basis, and I am mindful not to become emotionally attached to my things. I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, and I’ve watched all the episodes of Tidying Up on Netflix. In other words, I’m a pro.

OK, not so much a pro, but I’m trying!

Before my mom passed away, she hired a moving company to pack up her entire apartment into boxes and move them to my house. She split living her final days between my home in Florida and her cousin’s home in Tennessee. My husband and I took some of her things and fixed up the guest bedroom for her — we wanted her to feel comfortable and “at home” as much as possible. And I think she was as comfortable as she could have been as she lived the last of her life.

But let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the loss of your mother. Martel captures the scope of it when he says “To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you.” It is very, very difficult to sustain life without the sun.

And yet.

My life went on. Not only that, I had to take care of the rest of the boxes of my mom’s stuff sitting in our garage. It was at that point that I realized that I couldn’t allow myself to form an emotional connection to my mom’s stuff. My mom was gone, and her stuff wasn’t going to bring her back. And while my mom loved me, her stuff did not — and would not ever — love me.

I lost my mom. And then I got rid of nearly all of her things.

And yet.

My life went on. With less stuff.

When my dad died 7 years after my mom, I had to go through all of his belongings as well. I picked just a few things to keep, but the bulk of it had to go. So my husband and I set up a “poor-man’s” estate sale at his home and let strangers pick through his stuff. It was humbling, sad, and exhausting. I resonated again with Martel’s words in Life of Pi: “To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches.” (For more about how I dealt with the loss of my parents, read this post.)

Resiliency is a fascinating thing. Nature has plenty of examples of it: natural forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes. Given time, nature takes its course and the forests that were burned down reseed, the earth that was ravaged by hurricanes dries out, the fault lines exacerbated by earthquakes fill back in. Nature taking its course doesn’t mean that things go back to exactly the way they were before or that the land is necessarily better for it. But nature is pretty good at healing itself.

And I think humans are, too.

It’s interesting that after a storm hits, people come together. In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I was 7 years old, living in California, and what I most remember about it all was neighbors gathering in my garage eating together because my dad had a camping stove. It was awesome! To me, it felt like a party! (To my mom, not so much. Her china cabinet fell over, and every dish except one shattered. She cried.)

When Hurricane Irma hit in Florida in 2017, I wasn’t naively thinking there would be a “party” in my garage over a camping stove (we didn’t have one at the time, but after that hurricane, we bought one), but the neighbors came together to help each other out. There was a lot of destruction, flooding, and power loss, but what I remember most was the kindness.

So when Martel writes the “seashore teemed,” perhaps he wanted us to understand how overwhelming loss can be. Or perhaps he wanted us to realize just how much we will always still have left in us — even after experiencing great loss. Perhaps he was reinforcing the idea that we don’t need “things” in our lives as much as we think we do. Yes, the seashore teemed with the absence of all of the things.

But the seashore still teemed. And “teemed” is an action verb.

There was action.

There was movement.

There was hope.

And just as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reminds us, “The tide rises, the tide falls.” Life will continue. Healing may need to happen, and it may take time, but life will continue. Take a minute, listen to the ocean in your head, and read his poem:

“The tide rises, the tide falls, 

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls; 

Along the sea-sands damp and brown 

The traveller hastens toward the town, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

Darkness settles on roofs and walls, 

But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls; 

The little waves, with their soft, white hands, 

Efface the footprints in the sands, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls 

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls; 

The day returns, but nevermore 

Returns the traveller to the shore, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls.”

It may not be the most inspirational, hope-filled, happy poem. And, yes, it does seem that the “traveller” in the poem dies. But the commentary on nature is clear: it goes on. And as natural beings, so do we. We’ll deal with loss — and even we won’t live forever — but we’re resilient and can pick ourselves up and move one. And though I don’t have my parents living this life with me, I do have a wonderful husband and three wonderful sons. My life?

It’s teeming.

Be an Idiot! (Sometimes.)

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” –Bill Gates–

Spotting this quote on a wall at a pizza joint called Pieology, I immediately resonated with it and committed it to memory. I have a quote board in my classroom, and I was excited to share the quote with my students. I wanted to talk to my students about why Bill Gates would have said it and how it relates to their lives. I hoped that by someone famous — that, and anyone other than me — saying these words, the students would finally get it: success isn’t the end all.

And in fact, success can actually be harmful. If we float through life bobbing from one success to the next, when we do (inevitably) lose, we might just lose our minds (and drown, to continue the analogy). My students are hard working, grade oriented, and college bound, and they like to think that they don’t have time to lose or to fail. But I try (SO HARD) to help them understand that failures here and there actually help us learn to be better.

(So that’s one of those things that’s easier said than done.)

Because at the end of the day, who in their right mind actually wants to fail at something (a test in physics that brings the overall grade down)? And then have the failure documented (on a report card)? And then have that (report card) never go away? And then have that (grade on the report card) ruin our chances of getting into a good college which will then squash any hope of having a decent career which in turn will make us totally disgusting to a potential future partner which will of course lead to our dying alone in a ditch with not a dime to our name? All from failing one test in physics.

My sweet students. This is how they think. Now don’t misunderstand: I don’t advocate failing tests. What I do advocate is failing-but-learning-from-the-failure on the small stuff here and there leading up to the test and then acing the test! Again, easier said than done.

Alas, what can be done?

It’s difficult being a teacher (who gives grades) to tell my students to fail sometimes. I don’t want to see failing grades on any of their reports either. But ever since they started school in PreK, we’ve been judging them on how well they do everything and assigning grades. In PreK it may not be grades, but there is probably still a report card comparing the kiddos to some golden standard. Then all the way through school, students are assessed and assessed and assessed until it’s ingrained in them to do what they need to do to get the “A.”

What a pain in the ass(essment).

And who can blame them? It’s the system we’ve set up for them! I’ll get students coming into my 9th grade class who have never gotten below an “A.” They end up with an “A-” in my class, and they hardly know what to do with themselves they’re so distraught. It’s easy for me to scoff at them and tell them what a good lesson you’re learning in my class or you’ll thank me some day for this or simply you’re welcome, but the more I teach and the more I live, the more I feel for the students.

They are simply doing what they’ve been taught to do. And when it doesn’t work out for them, it’s tough. They don’t know what to do. They might get mad or bitter. They might lose self confidence. They might start experiencing anxiety or even depression. It’s not a good situation.

This is where it is so important for teachers and parents and other good humans to walk alongside our students and help them. Be there for them when they fall. Help them back up. Turn them in the right direction. Give them a little push. Share with them our failings. Be real. Be humble. Laugh together if possible. And continue to remind them of the folly of success and the benefit of failure.

And for those students who somehow get through all of school without getting any failing grades, well, therein lies the danger that Gates references: the seduction. It is definitely seducing to think that we can’t lose.

Seducing, but totally unrealistic.

If you know me, you know I’m a confident person. I’m a confident teacher to my students and a confident employee to my school. I do consider my professional life to be a success, and I’m happy about it. But I guess it’s here that I might veer just a bit from the Gates quote to say this: just because we experience success doesn’t mean that we’re not experiencing failures along the way. And if not failures, experiences that we can use to avoid complacency and keep us humble. So as a teacher, teaching from year to year to year, how do I stay fresh? How do I stay humble?

(1) First, I am mindful never to think or assume that I am the smartest person in a room, or even the classroom.

(2) I have learned that even if I feel 100% certain about something, to leave some room for doubt, especially when it’s giving a student the benefit of the doubt. If a student says he turned something in, and I just know he didn’t, I invite the student to check again on his end and I’ll check again on mine. There have been times that the student is right and I am — gasp — wrong. But when I can refrain from coming at students, all guns blazing, knowing I’m right and they’re wrong, I find I’m able to maintain respectful and professional relationships with the students, regardless of who’s wrong.

(3) I try to use the embarrassing moments in the classroom as laughable learning experiences for me. Here’s one:

In my AP Lit class one year, we were discussing Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and came across a lovely outdoor scene with this sentence:

“Yet this mildewed leaf in the sturdy and flourishing Casterbridge plant lay close to the open country; not a hundred yards from a row of noble elms, and commanding a view across the moor of airy uplands and corn-fields, and mansions of the great.”

Oh man, I just knew there was significance here. I especially thought the word “mildewed” had some deeper meaning that we should explore. I was trying to get the students to pay attention to the word and said it out loud a few times. The problem here is that I was not seeing that word as the past tense of the word “mildew.” Nope. I saw it as some weird, new-to-me vocabulary word. And it was, in my mind, a three-syllable word pronounced “mil-deh-wed.” One sweet girl timidly raised her hand to say, “Um, Mrs. Knapp, I think that word is pronounced ‘mil-dude.'” When the realization hit me, I simply had to shake my head in defeat and say, “Yes. Yes it is. You are right. That’s embarrassing.”

Well whoops.

But now it’s a story I often tell my students, and we laugh together about it. And let me tell you, there’s something very humbling about making such a dumb mistake — mispronouncing a word — in front of the smartest students in the school.

(4) I read. I read books the students are reading, and I read professional development books, and I read articles on psychology and education. I embrace new ideas and implement them. Sometimes they’re great! And sometimes they’re not! But I’m trying and I’m changing and I’m never stagnate. I think that’s what Gates means about success — that when it becomes a stagnate success, there’s trouble (right here in River City). I’m reminded of the quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when Brutus is talking to himself (as characters in Shakespeare often do) and is wondering if when Caesar becomes successful, he’ll turn his back on everyone who helped him and get lost in the clouds of success:

“But ’tis a common proof that lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, whereto the climber upward turns his face. But when he once attains the upmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend.”

It’s certainly easy to be seduced by success. And if we’re fortunate enough to consider our lives to be pretty successful, we have to be mindful to avoid complacency and to stay humble. As the wise Kendrick Lamar once said, “Sit down . . . be humble.”

So go ahead: Be an idiot sometimes! Make mistakes! Lose! But make sure that there’s movement — and that the movement is towards something good.

In closing, I’ll tell you that this post was the most difficult one I’ve written. I never felt the ideas flowing, and I had to keep coming back to it again and again to refine. And at one point (to be exact, when I had written 897 words), I decided to scrap the entire thing and start again. It couldn’t have been a better lesson for me in failing. I was frustrated and impatient. But I kept at it, and now I’ll publish this post. I still don’t think it’s my best work.

But there’s the beauty: we do our best, but we always believe we can do better. (See my other post: “Are you a human? Then do better.”) So if you take anything from this entire post, take this:

Avoid complacency.

Stay humble.

Fragments: A Lesson in Writing and in Life

“And then, the vague flicker of a lightbulb.” –Kate Morton, The Lake House

I’m really enjoying reading this book right now, and when I came across this sentence, I had to stop. I loved it. I love that it’s a fragment — that it defies conventions. I love that the sentence structure itself mimics the thought process of having an idea — the quickness, the fleetingness. I love that it’s its own paragraph. (Here’s a quick aside about the beauty of the English language and the art of writing: never in my life can I recall having written “it’s its.” It was satisfying to write in an odd sort of way.) And if you’ve gotten to know my writing style, you’ll know that I love that it starts with a coordinating conjunction.

The Literary Prude English Teachers of America do not approve this message.

And that’s why I have to write it.

When I became an English teacher fresh out of undergrad, I would occasionally email one of my high school English teachers to chat about lesson plans and ideas (and hopefully to get into my grimy little hands ANYTHING he would give me to help in those first few years). Because I was, at that point, An English Teacher, I was nearly paralyzed even just writing an email to him. What if I left out a comma? What if I didn’t write in complete sentences? THE HORROR. I wanted to communicate in a casual way, yet I found my sentences stilted. I didn’t really sound like me. I was terrified that if I wrote a fragment or broke whatever other fill-in-the-blank Convention of Standard English rule, he’d see right through me. And that I wouldn’t be worthy of being An English Teacher. I opted to write in complete sentences, and to keep the emails short.

There’s a reason it’s called “the writing process”: it’s long; it’s ongoing. It took YEARS before I felt comfortable enough to write emails to my former English teacher and colleagues in my voice as a writer. The Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA) had been strangling me, and I had to bring myself back to freshman year P.E., in the sweaty wrestling room where I learned self-defense, to get those prudes off my neck. And when I did, I tasted the glorious fresh air of being a writer with stylistic freedom. (I also realized that my former English teacher and colleagues weren’t going to scoff at me. They’d respect my voice; they’d respect my confidence. And if they didn’t? Well, then, they must have joined the LPETA at some point. And frankly I feel sorry for them. That, or I made a legitimate mistake in my writing. So I learn, (try to) stay gracious, and move on.)

Writing with stylistic freedom is all well and good. But what about standardized tests? What about AP English tests? Wa wa wa.

Listen:

If you can manage to learn the basics — parts of speech, sentence parts, grammar, and punctuation (OK, when I write it all out, it seems like a lot) — you can break the rules. But hear me when I say this:

Know the rules.

To break the rules.

So yes, there’s work involved at the student level. (PAY ATTENTION IN SCHOOL, KIDDIES!) But if you can hang in there in English class and learn the rules, you’ll be able to break them!

AND BREAKING RULES IS FUN!

Not only that, I’ve read many a post about AP English readers coming back from grading 5 gazillion essays from the exams saying that they appreciate a fresh style from the students. It makes sense: why would they want to read stilted formality all stuffed into a five-paragraph marshmallow from 5 gazillion students? GAG ME. Hear this piece of advice from AP reader Conni Shelnut:

. . . both writers and readers get bored when everything is formulaic, lacking some individual pizzazz! I suggest asking them to experiment with different sorts of syntactical devices to help them develop a sense of style.

An Exam Reader’s Advice on Writing

I was lucky enough to attend a session that Conni led, and she encouraged us to encourage our students to write without feeling like the LPETA is lurking over their shoulders, breathing foul, hot breath onto the back of their left ear. (Odd: for whatever reason I first wrote “fowl” instead of “foul.” I don’t know why. But when I caught it, I have to say it gave quite a nice image of old women in turtlenecks breathing out ducks that then waddled onto students’ left shoulders. Writing is fun. Sometimes mess-ups are fun, too.)

And speaking of mess-ups:

It’s now time to talk about life!

I don’t know about you, darling, but it’s simply exhausting being perfect all the time. I’m sure I don’t know how I do it. (But here’s a picture I’ll put on my Instagram story of my messy laundry room just to show you how “real” I am.) Sigh.

I actually don’t know how to be perfect. DUH. Newsflash: no one is perfect, and neither is their writing. (LPETA, I acknowledge the pronoun-antecedent disagreement and will say this: I don’t want to assume “one’s” gender, and “his or her” is awkward and binary and I JUST DON’T LIKE IT.)

And if you didn’t catch it, Instagram influencers aren’t perfect.

Here’s the deal: We don’t live in complete sentences. Our lives are rough drafts (more about that here: Ernest Hemingway and Shitty First Drafts). One day might be a nice, full-bodied compound-complex sentence, but the next? A one-word sentence. A one-word sentence that is its own paragraph. (That’s a day of only folding laundry, for sure. “Folding clothes, / I think of folding you / into my life.”) But just as the next sentence will come in writing, the next day will come in life.

And I think it’s good to acknowledge that not all the sentences we create are great. Not all the days we live are great. But the potential in each is undeniable.

We are the creators of our lives. How cool is that? Each day we get up and get to decide how we’ll live. Will we hit the snooze button again? Will we go to school? To work? Will we follow rules? Break them? Will we have a good attitude even when we want to punch someone in the face? Will we advocate for ourselves? For others? Will we mess up?

I am reminded of the William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus.” Though Henley’s situation was probably worse than ours (he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis when he was 12, which led to amputation of one of his legs; and his dad died when he was a teenager), we can still resonate with the perseverance and strength of the human spirit that he so masterfully conveys in his poem. Please take the time to read this (maybe even twice). It’s really good:

Out of the night that covers me, 

Black as the pit from pole to pole, 

I thank whatever gods may be 

      For my unconquerable soul. 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 

      I have not winced nor cried aloud. 

Under the bludgeonings of chance 

      My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 

      Looms but the Horror of the shade, 

And yet the menace of the years 

      Finds and shall find me unafraid. 

It matters not how strait the gate, 

      How charged with punishments the scroll, 

I am the master of my fate, 

      I am the captain of my soul. 

Damn. That’s some good perspective for us right there. In the face of adversity, he chooses strength. And though he might not have strength of body, he has strength of spirit.

So as we continue to create sentences and life (zeugma, check it), let’s be strong, show humility, laugh at ourselves occasionally, and allow for mess-ups. Let’s learn the rules. Let’s break the rules. Let’s find our voice.

And write fragments sometimes.

Read books. Not one kind. Mostly print.

“Friendship . . . is born at the moment when one man says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . ‘” –C.S. Lewis–

Isn’t that so true of fellow readers? When I come across people who have read and loved Khaled Hosseini novels, I have to resist the urge to wrap them in a big hug. When I find someone who reads, and the two of us have ongoing conversations about what we’re reading — my oh my, that is friendship at a whole ‘nother level. (As Aladdin would say, “Do you trust me? Then click on the link.” He said that, right?) But seriously, I do believe that there is something special about a friendship that involves book conversations. Especially fiction: we can talk to our friends about reality (ad nauseam) . . . but also about fictional worlds?

Level up.

Having just recently entered the blogging world, I am beginning to see the tip of the iceberg of the reading community here. And I am really excited about it.

Because when it comes to books, I can talk to complete strangers. As a matter of fact, when I am at a bookstore or the library slinking around the New Releases or YA sections, I have this secret hope that someone will pick up a book that I’ve read so that I can tell them how good it is or make recommendations based on it. This will then lead, of course, to more conversation about books and then, of course, to my recommending more books and then, of course, I will have become “the person at the bookstore who recommended that book that changed my life” and I will have achieved immortality.

Level up.

Can I tell you an embarrassing secret? When I go to bookstores, in a matter of minutes, I have to poop. TMI — sorry. I don’t remember exactly where I read about this — maybe the book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal — but when we’re feeling nervous, our brain sends signals to our gastrointestinal tract, causing it basically to have contractions or spasms. But I am the opposite of stressed at a bookstore. I am excited. So I’m thinking that excitement might work similarly. Don’t believe me? Read this article written by the professionals and scientists from the ever-reliable source, Buzzfeed. The more you know.

Level up? Well, maybe if you have constipation issues. (Seriously, though. You’re welcome.)

So if you’ve gotten this far reading my post, let me say this: if — gasp — you don’t read, consider reading for your digestive health. (Or at least browsing in a bookstore. It might work for you. It does for me.)

Aside from digestive health (which is very, very important by the way — did you know that your poop is a valid tool for assessing your health? WebMD Poop Slideshow), you should be reading books because you’re a human. I even wrote a post about it: “Are you a human? Then I have a book recommendation for you.”

Just with food, it’s important to get a variety of books into our diet. While The Literary Prude English Teachers of America would have you believe that you should only read the classics, I’m an English teacher who is telling you to read all kinds of books. Don’t limit yourself to — *adjusts turtleneck* — the classics. Don’t limit yourself to — *adjusts tie, adjusts American Flag pin* — only non-fiction. We don’t want to trap ourselves inside a bubble. I have a hard time with this. I’d be in — *adjusts my not-figure-flattering, high-waisted shorts* — the realistic/contemporary fiction bubble.

Moving on to the next level, I think it’s worth a conversation to talk about how and what to read. “Read books” is simple and perhaps vague advice. But that’s where we have to start. Reading in general is great, but if the extent of our reading is magazine articles or Instagram captions or ESPN.com, it’s not enough. So we start with something easy and perhaps a subject in our wheelhouse and go from there. (Looking for a recommendation? I listed a few in my book recommendation post.)

So we all have our bubbles. Let’s pop them and see what else is out there. We know that reading fiction increases empathy (go ahead, Google it because internet=truth), and that’s pretty darn cool. We can read about people who are very different from us (people that we might not even want to know in real life) and come to a new (better) understanding of them. We might even go from reading that book to being a better human to people who are different from us.

Level up.

Let’s recap:

  1. Books are good for our digestive health.
  2. Books help make us better human beings.

So far so good! Now I do want to take this conversation one step (level?) further. (Side-note: use “farther” when talking about anything physically measurable; use “further” for everything else.) I want to talk about . . .

Print books.

Now I know a lot of people read on their devices. Or listen to audio-books. And that’s great! But I think we lose something when we continually deny ourselves the physical pleasure of holding a book in our hands and turning the pages. There’s magic in it: you feel the book, you touch the pages, you smell it.

And in my personal experience, being both a human and an English teacher, I have found that I remember what I’ve read better from a print book, and my students have richer discussions when they’re using a print book. That is anecdotal, of course, but I’ll tell you this: I fought hard to get print books back into the hands of my students for the upcoming school year because I’ve seen a difference. I’ve taught students who solely use ebooks, and I’ve taught students who solely use print books. Students don’t get to the same depth of discussion when they read ebooks. Students are hardly ever completely focused on the discussion when they have a screen in front of them. And I’m even talking about my cream-of-the-crop AP Lit seniors. They are human, and they message each other during class. They do. They really do. (If you’re a teacher at an all-iPad school and you don’t think your students are doing fill-in-the-blank things on their iPads other than whatever you happen to be teaching, YOU ARE DELUSIONAL. Same goes for employees sitting in a meeting. It’s a reality. Maybe it’s sad, but it’s the way it is.) I’ll go ahead and confess that I definitely do off-topic activities on my phone or iPad or laptop during meetings. It’s just so easy and convenient (and fun)!

Listen:

We live in a screen-centric world where everything is at our fingertips, notifications come in like a constant drizzle, and multi-tasking is the norm and even exalted. Probably our job requires quite a bit of screen time. Of course we’re going to binge-watch Stranger Things. Even our cars have screens in them. And then our man-made appendage-screen, the phone. For me, sometimes my phone is the ultimate rabbit hole. What do I even do on that silly thing?

Recap: SO MANY SCREENS.

So why not take a break from the screen? Here’s how:

  1. Turn sound off on phone.
  2. Set phone in a room.
  3. Leave said room.
  4. Pick up a book.
  5. Read book.

A print book won’t interrupt you with notifications. A print book won’t beep or buzz at you (well, unless you have some weird interactive kids book which I don’t recommend your having in the house because sometimes at night when all the kids are in bed and you hear it making sounds it’s really scary and then you want to burn it). A print book doesn’t force you to basically stare into the sun (or the light of a screen, that is). A print book provides you with a tactile experience. I could go on.

So here we are! Read books. Not one kind. Mostly print. (Nod to Michael Pollan, one of my idols. Read his book In Defense of Food. It’s a total game-changer.)

Thanks, friend, for reading this post on a screen. Now that you have, toss your phone or iPad or laptop or desktop computer out the window, grab a book, and read. Enjoy the feel of holding the book in your hands, the sound of the pages turning, the smell of the paper and the ink, and the escape that only a book can provide. (I think I have to poop.)

But wait just one more minute . . . If you are a kindred spirit book lover, please introduce yourself and drop a book recommendation in the comments below. I’d love to geek out with you about books. And maybe experience the sentiment C.S. Lewis expresses in his quote: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . “

Happy reading, everyone. And nice to meet you.

You’re Breathing . . . But You’re a Loser

“Listen — are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” –Mary Oliver–

Every now and then, my husband decides to clean something. This morning, it was the kitchen cart, which houses various “kitcheny” things: serving bowls; a breadbox he made that stores bags and boxes of dried fruit, nuts, and crackers; a serving platter that holds some potted plants; and in the one drawer, about 50 packets of plastic cutlery. When he pulled out the individually-bagged plastic-ware, I looked at the bundle, and I said, “We’re hoarders.” We’ve had those packets in that drawer, accumulating more and more of them, for who-knows-how-many years now. And while my husband said, “We’ll just eventually use them,” I wanted them out of my house — but I refused to throw them away (or even recycle them) because they hadn’t even been used. So I took about 4 minutes, did a little online research, and found out that a local charity Waste Not Want Not would happily take them. We’ll be biking over to drop them off later today. And just like that, the plastic-ware will be out of our life and actually serving a (delicious) purpose.

I think Mary Oliver would approve. Dare I say . . . we’re really going to live today.

And getting Oliver’s approval would be everything. (Not familiar with her? Check out her bio and some of her poems on the Poetry Foundation website. Her poetry collection Felicity is my absolute favorite. I read quite a few of her poems to my high school students, and some of the teens even like her. So there.)

In her quote, she basically posits that people are barely living and in turn missing all the beauty that this world has to offer. My interpretation is a little more to the point: you breathe . . . and you think that’s a life? You are a mouth-breathing loser. Regardless, Oliver dishes a fresh call-out to every human:

  • Are you a student? She’s talking to you.
  • Are you a teacher or other professional? She’s talking to you.
  • Are you reading this sentence right now? She’s talking to you.
  • Do you have a pulse? She’s talking to you.

Now that we’ve established her audience, let’s chat about her sentiment here. She starts with a simple command: “Listen.” Simple and direct — I like it. It’s not italicized, and with the dash following it, it doesn’t seem like she’s raising her voice at us. And yet it’s commanding.

Listen.

There’s power in that word, and this week, your assignment is to notice when and how often you hear it. How is it being used? In anger? In urgency? In contemplation? In clarification?

I hear Oliver’s word said in quiet urgency. And her rhetorical question following it should stir urgency within us: “are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” Breathing — even just a little — most likely means that there is life. The heart is pumping; the lungs are working. But the problem is when we begin to associate being physically alive to actually living.

So what does it mean to actually live? This is a question I am constantly mindful to ask. If you read my last post, you know that I lost both parents to cancer. I am very, very concerned about making the most of my life here on this earth. I don’t want to live as a mouth-breathing loser.

I want to be out of breath from running around playing squirt gun fight with my boys.

I want to gulp air between sobs when I lose someone I love.

I want to suddenly draw in my breath when I see my husband after he’s been away.

I want to breathe. And I want it to be strong. (And maybe through my mouth only when I have a stuffy nose.)

But what is the allure of breathing just a little? Why does Oliver feel the need to call us out on that? Perhaps she recognizes how little effort and thought it takes to breathe just a little. I mean, we can be completely passed out, and our body will default to breathing. It’s not difficult. And we humans? We don’t really like difficult. And we don’t like discomfort. Take a moment to think about all the inventions that have made our lives easier and more comfortable:

  • remote for the TV — no more having to get up to change the channel!
  • pager — why leave a message on an answering machine and then wait for that person to get home to call you back when you can page that person and he can then run to the nearest pay phone to call you back? (And, if you were a teen in the nineties, PAGER CODE, or should I say 986312 6003.)
  • key-less car keys — why turn a key to turn on the ignition when you can just push a button?
  • email — why write a letter and address an envelope and pay postage when you can write and send an email in an instant?
  • text — why bother sitting down to write an email when just a few words will suffice?
  • remote presentation — why get up in front of people to speak when you can hide behind a power-point(-me-to-Hell-because-that’s-where-I-want-to-go-when-I-see-a-power-point-presentation)?

Ah, comfort. We love it. We love it so much that we actually go out of our way to stay comfortable. (Wait, but that doesn’t even make sense. Oh, the joy of being a mouth-breathing loser human and interacting with mouth-breathing losers humans. As a great astronomer once said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”) Speaking of going out of our way to stay comfortable, are you a manager and need to talk to an employee about something that might make the employee unhappy? Ooh, that’s an uncomfy sitch. So here’s what you do: lurk in dark places, and completely avoid the employee at all costs. When you see her coming around the corner, dive into the nearest office or classroom or locker (if you work at my school, the lockers are so big you could hop inside one and shut the door). When you have to be in a meeting together, arrive late and leave early; or immediately become engrossed in a conversation with another mouth-breathing loser human right when the meeting ends. The possibilities are really endless here, so get creative! When the employee inevitably finds out whatever it was you needed to tell her, you can conveniently be on vacation. Ah, comfort.

(Did you notice that the preceding paragraph was a sandwich? It was a sandwich made from that store-bought white bread. The kind that is devoid of any kind of healthy grain and full of mostly . . . air.)

My husband and I had been living a life of comfort for years with those plastic spoons and forks and knives quietly nestled in the kitchen cart drawer. But with just a little effort we’ll get them out of the house, actually help some people in the process, and appreciate all that this local charity is doing. I know it’s a very, very small example of making an effort in life, but it’s what we’re doing today.

It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little; do something.

Sydney Smith

Because I’ve read quite a few of Oliver’s works, I can say that she would probably never call anyone a loser, let alone a mouth-breathing one. She would probably be a lot nicer in expressing her sentiment and focus on all the good things we can do and all the good things we can appreciate. But I maintain that she is calling us out. She knows how complex we are — and how that means we are capable of living incredibly rich lives. We have it within us to fully enjoy the beauty in nature and in man. And if we resort to just breathing? Yeah, it’s like we’re taking a fat dump on all of that beauty, wasting it completely and ruining it for those around us.

Let’s move into our next day of life, remembering her words.

Let’s embrace discomfort and effort and even difficulty.

And let’s start breathing a little harder. (Through our nose.)

End-note: I learned from my dentist that if you breathe through your mouth when you sleep, you’re much more prone to getting cavities. Our noses are much better at filtering dirty air, especially when our mouths dry out and don’t have as much bacteria-fighting saliva.

Mush! And Other Lessons From a Dog

“He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken.” –Jack London, The Call of the Wild

So many great “life quotes” in a book about a dog. I’ll be honest: I decided to read this book because when my husband handed it to me, he told me that it’s really good . . . and only 62 pages. I’m a little behind on my Goodreads reading challenge of 50 books a year, so a short book is right up my alley. I’ll tell you, it’s refreshing to read a book in a day. I definitely recommend it! And, wow — the vocabulary was on point. (I would recommend the book to humans who are serious about upping their vocabulary. And students: SAT test prep much?)

Interestingly, this sentence comes on page six of the book. Two great things about this: (1) London dives right into the action — already Buck has been stolen and handed over to greedy gold-diggers — and (2) the reader is under no illusion that this is going to be a happy story. I, for one, appreciate that.

As soon as I read this sentence, I knew I wanted to use it as the inspiration for a blog post. It screams, Life advice! Take heed! Listen up! Being “beaten” isn’t exactly inspiring, and it’s certainly not a place people want to be. But when we look at the rest of the sentence, we can see that being “broken” is worse. Taking a quick look at structure, we see that the two clauses are joined in two ways: a semicolon and a coordinating conjunction (not recommended by The Literary Prude English Teachers of America). But I like it. There is a punctuation mark connecting the ideas. And there is a conjunction connecting the ideas.

Such a strong connection. Let’s dive in.

I think I can speak for most of us here when I say it’s not enjoyable to run a race just to be beaten. We want to win! Or at least we want to beat someone else! When I ran track in high school (my main event was the mile; occasionally I’d run the 800), I knew I wasn’t going to be the winner coming around that fourth lap, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be last. In fact, I’d probably beat most of the other girls running, and that was enough for me. There was a certain pleasure to burn past girls and leave them in my dust. (Some might say “It was a pleasure to burn.”) If I came in last every single time I ran the race, I might realize that perhaps the mile wasn’t my event. Maybe I should try triple jump. But even beating some of the runners, I realized that I wasn’t good enough to pursue track at the collegiate level. And so I moved on from my “track career.” Buck quickly realizes his limitations when it comes to a man with a club. He realizes that a man with a club is not beatable.

But I’ll say this: there is a unique perspective we get when we’re getting beaten. Maybe someone is ahead of us, or maybe someone is above us, but we see what it looks like and experience what it feels like in that position. And if we come out of it still alive, well, we’ve come out of a learning experience! Now we know some things:

  • When you see a fist descending down upon you, move.
  • When you see a spear hurling at you through the air, duck.
  • When you see someone about to grab the last Tickle-Me-Elmo on Black Friday, dive in front of her, throwing an elbow if needed.

You get the idea. Being in a “loser” position definitely helps us understand how to get into the “winner” position.

Ah, if only it were that easy. Just like Buck coming across a man with a club, there are certain situations where we’re going to be beaten. Every. Time. It doesn’t matter how hard we try or how much we work.

We will still fail. Someone or something will beat us.

And sometimes it’s life.

When I was 26 — happily married, happily working, happily living — I got a call from one of my mom’s friends telling me that my mom was in the hospital recovering from surgery. I knew my mom was going in for a colonoscopy, but I was really confused that all of a sudden she was recovering from surgery. And even more confused that she hadn’t called me (she lived in California; I lived in Florida). Come to find that doctors discovered cancer, and they had to act fast. I felt like a trap door had opened underneath me and that I was falling into darkness. Her prognosis was a year, give or take a few months.

14 months later, she died.

I remember telling my husband that my mom was like my anchor, and without her, I felt like I was floating farther and farther away into dark waters. Falling through darkness, floating in dark waters, I felt disoriented. Life was fuzzy, and everything seemed distorted.

I felt broken.

But I pulled myself up with God’s help (just another reason I believe in God — I don’t think I would have gotten through that experience without feeling loved by a good God). And I re-calibrated my life. I now had to figure out how to live (and be happy) without my mom. I was beaten (she was gone); but I wasn’t broken.

It took some time, but I got to a point of really loving life again. I knew it’s what she wanted for me, so I took it upon myself to take a disciplined approach to happiness. I focused on the blessings in my life, I took time to appreciate the people in my life, and I was mindful of the beauty in nature around me.

So when my dad died of cancer seven years later, I just became bitter. I felt broken again, but in a different way. I couldn’t understand how both of my parents were taken from me. And while my mom was my confidante, my anchor, my best friend, my dad was the one in my corner, yelling at me to beat the bastards (his language, not mine). He believed in me to a fault. He would take my side in all situations without knowing any details. If I disliked someone, he hated them. I remember in elementary school coming home and telling him about this girl who was annoying me, and he actually said that if it was really a problem, he’d have to beat her up. Luckily, my dad wasn’t actually violent and would never actually beat up a seven-year-old, but you better believe I felt like I could conquer the world with him on my side.

But now he was gone, too. I felt so alone. I didn’t have brothers or sisters to commiserate with me. It was just me.

It is amazing to me how resilient a human can be. I made it my mission once again to seek happiness in life. I realized once again that even though I felt broken, I wasn’t. I understood on a very practical level that dwelling on the sadness and unfairness of it all would make my life stagnate. And as our friend Einstein says, “It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike. Only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance.”

And moving through life is a privilege. Not everyone gets to do it. I like to remind myself that even when life is not going the way I’d like it to go, I’m alive. Walt Whitman’s poem “O Me! O Life!” touches on the concept of living through all the struggles of life because at the end of the day we all have a purpose. Do yourself a solid, and actually take time to read through the poem. Read it all, and read it slowly:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

So we keep going — because we’re not broken, and because it’s our imperative to contribute something to this life. For Buck, it means to mush, or basically march through the snow. For us, it’s the same concept. Keep mushing, keep moving.

I am still sad about the loss of my parents. It’s something I deal with on a daily basis, and it’s especially painful when dealing with difficult people in life. I don’t have my mom saying, “It’s OK, honey; just hang in there; I’m sorry those people are treating you that way.” And I don’t have my dad yelling, “THOSE SHITHEADS! No one treats my daughter that way!”

I’ll end with this: to experience the heights, we must experience the depths. How much greater is the view on top of the mountain after we’ve done the work to climb up from the valley? It’s been a great reminder for me as I traverse the ups and downs of life. I hope it’s a good reminder for you, too.

We might be beaten. But we’re not broken.

Are you a human? Then disobey.

“Resist much, obey little.” –Walt Whitman–

For the most part, I consider myself a rule follower. In college, when my boyfriend and his buddies launched water balloons onto the football field during a powder puff game or donned their wet-suits to “swim” in all of the on-campus fountains or caught an opossum to release it into the laundry room of the freshman boys’ dorm, I didn’t join. I did sit in the stands at the powder puff game laughing as water balloons interrupted the game, knowing who was behind it. I found it humorous that the campus police (“Campus Safety,” as they were called) knew exactly who my boyfriend was. I definitely enjoyed living vicariously through his antics — all from the comfort of my obedience.

Not to say that I should have been out pranking the school at every opportunity, getting on the campus police’s “blacklist,” but maybe I did miss out a little bit. Ever the bad influence, my boyfriend did get me to disobey a bit here and there. Senior year, we climbed onto the roof of the largest building on campus — something that was definitely against the rules.

And then I married the guy. (Love ya, hubby.)

I think I knew deep down that I was never going to be with someone who floated along with the status quo. Where’s the fun in that? But more importantly, who wants to be with a rule-following robot?

And then I started asking myself if I was a rule-following robot.

It’s so easy to become. It’s what employers and law enforcement and government want you to become. And to an extent, it’s necessary to follow the rules.

But when the rules don’t make sense anymore, what is one to do? Remember Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”? The unnamed narrator has just had a baby, is experiencing depression (yes, it’s postpartum), and is confined to her room, not allowed even to write in her journal. She knows this is unhealthy, but she is a woman, and not only is her husband a man, but he’s a doctor (oooOOOhhh). She tries to follow the rules. But it makes her crazy. She scratches and rips at the wallpaper in her attic room, frantically trying to release the woman she sees trapped inside the walls. On all fours, she “creeps” around the room (eventually creeping over her passed-out husband). Clearly, following the rules was not a good idea for her. (If you haven’t read the story, you should! It’s a fantastic read. You can the full text here, provided by Project Gutenberg: “The Yellow Wallpaper.”)

In her case, following the rules made her lose her mind. So what does following the rules do to us?

I can only speak for myself, but here’s what I’ve learned about being a rule-following robot:

  • It inhibits change.
  • It squelches potential.
  • It stifles creativity.
  • It prevents questioning.

I’ll be honest: sometimes I wonder if those people put in authority over me were put there because they are rule-following robots. They do what they are told to do. And they are controllable. It might be the easy way out for employers to put rule-following robots into management positions because employers don’t feel threatened by robots.

But how innovative and creative and healthy could our environments be if we could freely question the rules and have healthy dialogue?

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. –Albert Einstein

I work as a teacher at a private school. We don’t have to follow all the rules that public schools do. But even at a private school, I think we still have a tendency to want rule-following-robot teachers and rule-following-robot students. Perhaps what it comes down to is that it’s easier and safer to run an institution where people simply do as they’re told. But if we want to be set apart and different from other schools, it’s probably not going to happen if things are always easy and safe. It’s probably not going to happen if a few people at the top are making the rules. It’s probably not going to happen if the rules aren’t being questioned.

So this blog post is for all humans. Are you an underling? Have the confidence to ask questions and push for change. If you aren’t supported in that, if at all possible, leave. Are you in a management position? Encourage your people to ask questions and push for change — and then be their advocate to the higher-ups. Finally, are you a CEO? A head of school? The president? If you are secure in your own abilities, you will welcome discourse that includes resistance to your rules and questioning of your decisions.

Stop floating through the bog that is the status quo, adhering to someone else’s version of life. In the wise words of Big Brother contestant Rachel Reilly, “Floaters, you better grab a life vest.”

But in all seriousness, I think Whitman’s words still ring true today. Never accept status quo. Never get to the point in life of I’ve figured it all out. Never stop questioning. Resist. Disobey.

And as a(n almost) final note, it’s interesting that Whitman expressed his antithesis of two independent clauses by joining them with only a comma. In terms of formal English, it’s a run-on. (Well, I never! *Says with pinky finger up whilst sipping tea.*) So maybe he chuckled to himself as he wrote that. Whitman: the rebel, the rule-breaker. Good ol’ Walt. Certainly we appreciate Whitman’s wit and writing legacy (clearly we do: he is the poetic inspiration of the wildly popular series Breaking Bad). And it’s writers like him who have influenced me as a writer. They’ve inspired me to break the rules of writing. And it’s freeing, I’ll tell ya. (How many times do I write fragments? Or start sentences with coordinating conjunctions?)

But while appreciating is nice, it’s not going to change our lives — action will. So let’s do it. Resist. Disobey. Zip into your wet-suit, and jump in a fountain. And let’s teach our kids to do the same. (Cue the riff from “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.)