Are You Paying Attention?

Are you a person who notices coincidence? I am. In fact I just can’t stop noticing patterns and coincidences everywhere in this strange, beautiful world. In this post I’ll focus on my favorite correlations: those I find in reading and writing.

I have a literal pile of books in my home; these were bought for $1 at the library, or given to me, or bought for myself – at full price (gasp!). I also cruise the library weekly and borrow any book I can’t resist. This is all in addition to a virtual pile of books on my Kindle.

I read in a promiscuous manner – anything and everything – fiction, non-fiction, books published this year, books published twenty or fifty years ago. I typically read two books at a time, setting myself up with fiction/nonfiction, or a horror/comedy, etc. My reading choices are most often random and blind (as in I heard this book was good but that’s all I remember about it), so when coincidences jump out at me from the books the only explanation I can come up with is that the universe is telling me something. Something that I haven’t yet been able to decipher; but something just the same. Here are some examples.

I picked Uni the Unicorn from the library to read to my son at bedtime. I read two each night, and that night, I plucked another book at random from O’s shelf; it was I Wish You More. Both were written by Amy Krause Rosenthal who then died a few days later; a tragic coincidence.

I read Gone Girl set in a small town in Missouri at the same time I read another book set in the same area of that state. Though N. Carthage in GG was a fictional town and I can’t even remember the other book I was reading, this still counts.

I wrote a post on my blog about love at first sight , then started reading Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff. Love at first sight (or is it?), New York, the art world. The very next book I picked up was Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss. New York, the art world, synesthesia. I myself have synesthesia and have sort of written about it it on this blog. Closed circle. Also I wonder if Lauren Groff and Molly Prentiss know each other. I feel like they should be friends based on those two books.

I read The Girls by Emma Cline, which is roughly about a girl who joins a cult in 1969. The girls in the cult go on to murder people in a celebrity’s home. The day after I finished this one, Charles Manson died. I mean, come on!

I read Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. The aunts have a cat named Magpie, who lives for an abnormal amount of years. Immediately after this book, I read Promise Not To Tell by Jennifer McMahon and a main character in that story has a cat named Magpie, but he gets his throat sliced.

In the fiction chapter book I’m writing: I write about a magical oasis and an Oasis song comes on while I’m writing that part. Thank you for the sign, universe. I write a short story about a person who eulogizes others for a living: the Sia song Breathe Me comes on. (Now bear with me here) this song was the last thing to be seen and heard on the late great series Six Feet Under (binge it NOW if you’ve somehow missed this in your life). Six Feet Under was about death. You can’t eulogize someone unless they are dead. Bingo, universe, why yes I’ll keep writing!

It must mean something right? Or does it just mean that I get really excited about coincidences that no one else would even bother to notice? Does this happen to you?

book vortex
My TBR vortex
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Falling Asleep Wrapped in an Old Book

One of my favorite things is falling asleep. The best thing about it is not the actual sleeping, but the few magical moments between being awake and asleep.  I’m tired, but in a satisfied way like a puppy – eyes closing, body cozying in on itself, mind going to one of the happy places it hides in at night. That’s my sweet spot right there. And of course that feeling is tied up with books.

Last night (as most nights) I fell asleep while reading. This time it was my book club’s selection –  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The copy I’m reading is old. The book was published in 1943 and even though this isn’t a first edition, it’s close. There is a note inside from the publisher stating that the book is “manufactured in strict conformity with Government regulations for saving paper.”

I lifted this copy from the library of my Grandmother’s vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard. When I was in my early twenties, we had to sell the place. Even though the sale included its contents, I raided the built-in book shelves that lined two whole walls of the living room, taking my memories: this book and many others that I had read during summer weeks in that place.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has my great, great Aunt’s name inscribed on the inside cover. “Helen Aston” it says in her spiky handwriting; familiar to me from The Lobster Pot, though I never met the woman who built and ran the place as a restaurant and rooming house with her sister in the 1920s.

lobster pot books
ill-begotten books

The book is musty. The pages are thin, discolored, and about to rip at any moment. The cover is faded pink cloth with a peeling spine label, and the binding strings are coming loose.  I couldn’t love it more. The noise the binding makes when the book is opened, closed, or page-turned is supremely satisfying. The smell of it is my childhood.

I remember originally reading it while lounging on the “reading porch” that ran around three sides of the house. I read my summer books while reclined on a noisy, ancient metal wheeled chaise covered with a lumpy pink (it was red 40 years before) cushion that resembled the cover of the book in both choice of fabric and utter mustiness. It was heaven.

I drifted off to sleep last night in the comfort of the same feeling I’d get while reading books on that porch in summer (in the rain, the sun, the middle of the night.) I smelled the ocean while I read the Poisonwood Bible. I read Shakespeare while sitting there listening to the buoy bong. I read Stephen King there (in day light only, of course.)

It’s not the stories I remember as much as the feeling of perfect safety, comfort and harmony. A feeling we all need more of as adults. But last night, for one magical moment before I lost consciousness, I was back on the reading porch, engrossed in Francie Nolan’s hard life.  In my happy place.

Field Trip

My kindergartener is on his first field trip today. They are visiting the aquarium. He recently announced that he’s “really into fish” so I am happy for him.  However, I will spend the day vacillating between frustration and guilt regarding the chaperone situation.

When I was in second grade, my dad came on our field trip to the Museum of Science in Boston. I was thrilled about him getting a peek into my world, meeting my school friends and sharing that experience with me.  He bought me a gyroscope and a prism in the gift shop. It was a big deal and I knew that I was “lucky” enough to have my dad come because he was unemployed at the time.  Lost in these fond memories, I filled out the volunteer form to be a chaperone for this trip and sent it in immediately.

The VERY NEXT DAY the teacher emailed the parents of the class saying that so many parents had volunteered as chaperones that they couldn’t fit us on the bus. Therefore, if we still wanted to come we could drive our own cars behind the bus. This is where I lost interest. I am trying to get O to be more independent, and I was going to have to alter my work schedule to go anyway. I let this one go.

I know a bunch of parents of the kids in O’s class. They are all going on the field trip.  They’ve taken off work and lined up babysitters for their other kids (or just bringing siblings along).  They are driving their mini vans and SUVS behind the bus and attending the field trip with their children.

I’m trying not to judge the parents that are going; I wanted to be one of them. But, I wanted it to be special. In our school it is definitely NOT special that a parent is there. Because a parent is always there. Every day there is at least one parent volunteer in class. I have a friend who randomly stops in to say hi or see her kid at lunch. It’s nice that we live in a time and place that allows us to do all this, but is there a hidden cost to the kids? Are we as parents doing this type of thing for ourselves?

I think the parents that are going are doing so with the best of intentions:  because it will be a fun thing to do with their kids. Maybe it will be something that these kids write about on their future blog. Except, maybe not. If a parent is present for all the things, even the school things, are they still unique experiences? Or is it like taking a trip to the aquarium with your mom, but you happen to run into all your friends and your teacher? I don’t know. But I am viewing this as an opportunity for O to find out.

skenazy

I recently read and am recommending the book Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy (http://www.freerangekids.com/). It gave me a lot to think about. You don’t have to get on board with everything in the book; I have not. But it is definitely an interesting read. While I probably wouldn’t put my 9 year old on public transportation in NYC like she did – noting that I do not live there and am not comfortable with it myself – I can let O go on a very supervised field trip with his class without my attendance.  I recommend this book for every parent; those that agree with my sentiments and those that do not. She has an interesting perspective and makes a lot of valid points. Not all of them were for me, but the book as a whole has really opened my eyes to the culture of invulnerability we are trying to surround our kids with.

So, how to explain all this to the five year old looking up at you with big brown eyes asking why you aren’t coming on the field trip because all his friend’s mommies are:  I don’t know the right answer. I do know that like so many times in this parenting game, I gave the wrong one.

Fear. And Sue Klebold’s book.

Today I am heartsick, sad, disgusted, outraged and curious. With the violent events that happened in the past few days all I can feel around me is fear. My own, but also the amplified collective fear. It’s ratcheted up to a deafening level. I think fear is the problem and anger, rage and violence are symptoms. Who am I to say this? No one with a credential; just a feeling. If you are afraid that someone is going to shoot you, you would shoot them first. If you do not understand someone’s motives, it is easy to be afraid of them. How did we get here? It all feels broken.

While the events of the past few days have been happening I’ve simultaneously been reading a book called A Mother’s Reckoning, Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. This book was written by Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the murderers involved in the Columbine school shooting. I haven’t slept since I started this terrifying book, and finished it just a few minutes ago. While written about her specific, very isolating experience, I found so much of it to be applicable to what is happening today. Gun violence, ignorance of mental health issues, hidden agendas, gun violence, media circuses, guns. And violence.

I have vivid memory of driving on I-84 West in West Hartford, CT on April 20, 1999, and hearing that there were kids – kids! –  shooting other kids in a high school in Colorado. I ached. I cried. I was appalled and disbelieving as so many others at the time. Seventeen years from now, I’m sure that I will have no recollection of what was going on at the time I learned of Alton Sterling’s death, or the death of five Dallas Police Officers.  Why? Because now it is commonplace; expected even. Now this is part of the American experience.

While I have not yet fully processed Klebold’s book, there was something I just read that struck me as true, bold, and useful today. Close to the end of the book she writes “When tragedies like Columbine or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook happen, the first question everyone asks is always ‘Why?’ Perhaps this is the wrong question. I have come to believe the better question is ‘How?’”  I agree. I think you could take out the school names and insert “Dallas” or “black men dying in gun violence at a tragic rate” and the passage still fits.  How did we get to a place where this is our new normal?

This book was truly heartbreaking and has given me fodder for nightmares and worry for at least the next twenty years. What saddens me most at this very moment is that she has laid her story bare, she has shared what she could, she has worked to do positive things in the areas of mental health (or “brain health” as she rightfully calls it), suicide prevention, and more.  And, yet these things persist. Events like those in the past 48 hours make me feel like Klebold and others in the world are pushing a boulder up a hill endlessly. We all need to help.

Klebold states later, “Asking ‘why’ only makes us feel hopeless. Asking ‘how’ points the way forward, and shows us what we must do.” I emailed a Board of Education member in my town today to ask about whether our school system has a curriculum of any sort regarding conflict resolution. She invited me to call her later to chat, and I will.  What do I know about curricula, or even conflict resolution? Nada. But I want to, and I want to know what steps we can take to help our children move away from this climate of fear. This is the tiniest of movements, but it is a movement.

I am making a personal promise to move only forward with love and empathy. I am still figuring out what that means, but that will not stop me. Please if you are reading this, please consider doing something today and every day– anything – to counteract the fear, violence and hate that is so palpable. And I mean anything. Choose to be kinder. Do someone a favor with your child watching. Talk to your kids about violence and racism. It is scary. It is not easy. It has to be done.

Keep Reading

Last night when I put my eight year old to bed I got in and we cuddled up back-to-back with our books. This is always one of the best parts of my day. The feeling of his back against mine, hearing him laugh out loud at part of his book every few minutes – pure bliss. He is still young but already I’m worried about keeping him a reader. I’ve talked before about his checkered past in regards to reading, and the book that bridged a gap for him (check it out here).  But how to keep this momentum we’ve created; even in middle and high school?

My kids love Jon Sciesza’s books (especially The Stinky Cheese Man, check it out for creative silliness) and recently I found his Guys Read site on a Google search. In discussing why boys may not be reading as much as girls, he points out that many reading role models are female. Therefore reading can be categorized as a “feminine” activity in a little boy’s brain for all time.  In our house this is definitely true. My husband has never read books of any kind (he swears that he must have done so in school but can’t remember any of them). While I’m reading actual old-school books, he is devouring periodicals and internet articles on his devices. He probably reads as much as I do but his material choices are so vastly different, my kids’ visual is reduced to this: mom is reading; dad is playing on his phone.Collage 2016-05-24 09_15_07

I remember thumbing through a pictorial spread a few years ago in a celebrity rag, called something like “Sexy Men: They Can Read Too”. Paparazzi photos of male celebrities walking around with books peppered the pages. No matter that most of them seemed staged to me (come one, if you’re grabbing your book on the way out the door how often do you position it so the cameras can read the title?). It’s apparently odd to see a man with a book.

I also keep hearing variations on this idea: as boys get older they value reading less because they want to read for a practical reason, rather than just for the story. To me, getting involved in a story is a practical reason for reading, and why shouldn’t it be? Why does everything need to be value-added?  If this were true then surely boys/men wouldn’t want to watch Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, right? I mean, they are just stories not filled with practical information (ok, I can see that some of you are silently arguing this point on The Walking Dead).

For now I can only hope that this pure love of reading – one of the deepest I’ve felt in my life – imprints on my children. If it takes hold of them as it has me, then surely nothing will stop them from reading, right?

Stay Gold, Ponyboy

Most people probably look back on junior high with mixed emotions. There were a lot of ups and downs. I looked like a train wreck, scrawny and pale as a wet noodle with terrible hair, and wearing the same sweater over and over because it was the only one I owned that I liked, with high-waters and the Kmart brand of Eastlands. Despite this, I had a great group of girlfriends that were funny and smart and actually liked me (shout-out to Lee, Laura, Marty, Nik & the twins!).In particular, I remember seventh grade as a stand-out year. It was the last year that I still felt truly like a kid.  I liked boys, but in more conceptual sense than eighth grade. My friends and I had finally mastered the one-curl bang and the lunch-time Poison VS Def Leppard wars were in full effect.

One of the biggest reasons I so happily remember my seventh grade year was English class. Mrs. Paradis was fun and engaging; her classroom was like an adventure to me. I had been an avid reader since before I even got into school, but seventh grade was the year that my love affair with literature caught fire. Unlike the Babysitter’s Club series, these books were a kind of universal language. Adults in my life had read them and cared to talk with me about them.  We “knew” the same characters. “Stay gold, Ponyboy”, I would say with a somber nod to anyone who would listen.  Man, I was cool.

The standouts that year were The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, and Animal Farm by George Orwell. I know there were many more, but 25 (ish) years later these are the three that I remember igniting in me a particular passion. I wanted to put away the safe “kiddie” novels I was reading and start asking larger questions. I realized that writing doesn’t have to be taken at face value; story can be a shell for something deeper. I loved this idea, it was like finding a treasure that was really a puzzle that you didn’t even know existed. I enjoyed thinking in layers. In retrospect, the books in the seventh grade curriculum at CMS (go maroon & gold!) were probably chosen for this very reason.  I now raise my wine glass to the powers that be that chose those books for my class to read.  Your curriculum worked for this book nerd.

This was my first introduction into “adult” reading. While my religious friends were taking their Confirmations and Bar Mitzvahs, I had my own little threshold-crossing from kid books to literature. Now reading was for more than fun, yet I still reading because it was fun.  This was as close as I ever would get to any ceremony to mark my growing up in the eyes of society. And no one but me knew about it! But things were different from then on. Side note: I went crazy that summer reading Stephen King novels – only outside lying on the hammock, in broad daylight for safety. I devoured The Stand, The Shining, Thinner and anything else my stepfather had on the shelf.

Now as an adult I revisit childhood books, having recently read The Little Prince and Lord of the Flies I can highly recommend going backward and doing this at some point in your life.

Possible 7th grade reading list patched together from a shady memory and the internet:

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton

Animal Farm, George Orwell

A Midsummer Nights Dream, William Shakespeare

Lord of the Flies (I feel like this was more likely 5th grade for us), William Golding

Of Mice and Men, George Steinbeck

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells

Where the Red Fern Grows (again, I feel like this was read earlier), Wilson Rawls

staygold

 

Book club with my 8 year old

One of the things I imagined for myself as a parent was having in-depth philosophical conversations about books with my children. Then, I actually had children.

I did everything “right”: I started reading to them immediately, every day, explaining how new worlds open up when you can read, how you’ll never be bored if you have a book (all the while thinking ‘shut up! You sound like your mother!’). I even read to them while I was still pregnant, just in case.

My youngest cannot yet read, and he seems to not even care about learning his letters. TBD I suppose. But my oldest – my oldest has actively hated the books I’ve tried to share with him from my childhood.  He suffered through Charlotte’s Web recently, turning away from me and staring at the wall while I read chapters to him at night as if trying to retreat to a happy place in his head in which he could not hear my voice.

He is in third grade, so I know he’s not old enough to have formed lifelong habits (or non-habits as is the case with reading).  But I was irrationally sad when I received a notification on a test at his school that surmised he was reading at only a first grade level. I’m no teacher, but even I thought this seemed wrong. When I spoke to his teacher about it she informed me that the reason he scored so low was because he completed his test in less than three minutes – it was supposed to take 20 – because he didn’t want to “waste his time” reading.  This was very much like him poking me in the eye with a sharp stick.

Recently, though, something changed. I am thanking the book The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate for this.  E has 20 minutes of daily reading required by his teacher.  He went from setting a timer for exactly 20 minutes and staring it down the whole time, to voluntarily reading for 40-60 minutes without a timer.  The first time he did it he said it was easy because the book had “sucked him in.”  My heart grew three sizes that day.  And then, when he finished the book, my heart actually exploded when he casually said “Mom, you should read this book.”  Here it was, our first shared book.  I got so excited I read the book as fast as humanly possible so I could have a conversation with him about it.  Here is how this conversation just went down:

Me: “E, I just finished that book you recommended.”

E: “Did you like it?”

Me: “I loved it” (here I paused to wipe away a tear)  “but it was so sad. Also it was beautiful. I had so many feelings about it.  What did you think?”

E:

Me: “E, what did you think?”

E: *walking away* “Good, uh huh, good…”

For now, it’s enough.