Monthly Archives: September 2010

Things that lift my spirits

I have a new favorite book: “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead.  It’s about friendship, science, love, family, loneliness, the search for meaning, prejudice, beauty, discovery, and time travel.  It also happens to be written for 8-to-12-year-olds.  Children’s books are a great antidote to cynicism and chaos.

The main character, twelve-year-old Miranda, has a favorite book: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle.  She reads it over and over again and refers to it as “my book”, committing it to memory and contemplating its time travel paradoxes.  Then one day she’s contacted by a time traveler.

“When You Reach Me” is my book.  It’s one of those books that make me feel like I’m not alone in the universe, one of those rare works of art that really connect with me.  There are so many poignant threads that dangle from the main plot, that are not central to the story but spin out oh-so-beautifully and make me love this book.  Every character in the story is me.

I love this book so much that I read it three times in three days.  Here’s an excerpt:

I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart.  Okay.  Now life begins.  It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger.  And one day something crawls out of the water onto land.  There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike.  There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin.  But basically they are all the same.  They create shelters, grow food, experiment.  They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward.  The earth is still making loops around the sun.  There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes.  And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

“Does it really matter?” I asked myself.

It did.

burnout

It’s amazing how my attitude towards my job can go from extreme joy to extreme loathing in no more than the time it takes to be overcome by crippling stress-related gastrointestinal pain.

After giving up everything else in my life to work 100+ hour weeks for three months, my body and my mind are broken.  I don’t know how long it will take before my brain function goes back to normal and my limbs stop throbbing with pain from built-up exhaustion.  I can’t help but feel that some of the parts of myself that I gave up this summer, I won’t be able to find again.

Enigmatism

I’ve just finished reading I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  My favorite thing about this book is in its secondary storyline, the description of the book that the protagonist’s father is writing.  In a form deemed “Enigmatism”, he writes a book in several sections that consists of crossword puzzles, children’s games, and other seeming nonsense.  As Simon explains to Cassandra:

“I think your father believes that the interest so many people take in puzzles and problems– which often starts in earliest childhood– represents more than a mere desire for recreation; that it may even derive from man’s eternal curiosity about his origin.  Anyway, it makes use of certain faculties for progressive, cumulative search which no other mental exercise does.  Your father wants to communicate his ideas through those faculties.”

He told me to think of a crossword puzzle– of the hundreds of images that pass through the mind while solving one.  “In your father’s puzzles, the sum-total of the images adds up to the meaning he wants to convey.  And the sum-total of all the sections of his book, all the puzzles, problems, patterns, progressions– will add up to his philosophy of search-creation.”

Using the mental imagery created by words and puzzles to create the story in the reader’s mind instead of on the page– that is the most brilliant idea for a book I’ve ever heard.  I long to read this book.  I wish it actually existed.

A good/bad summer

Summer is over, and I don’t even know what to say about it.  It was both terrible and wonderful.  It contained both the best and worst experiences of my career and my life.  At times I felt both more alive and closer to death than I ever have before.

In true Alaska form, the good things that happened this summer were amazingly wonderful and the bad things were outrageously terrible.  So many things went wrong in spectacular ways and can only be described as all-around bad: no matter how you looked at it, there was no way out of them that would be any less difficult or distressing.  They still make me nauseous.  On the other hand, there were so many wonderful and life-changing moments, for me as well as for my students.  This is dizzying to think about because the good and bad things sometimes happened simultaneously, or arising out of the same situation.  I don’t even know how to wrap my mind around them.

I’ve always been a pro at the art of exhaustion, but I discovered even more shades and consequences of exhaustion this summer than I ever thought existed.  I feel like I should catalog them because they are all so different in their despair.  I’ve wondered, not briefly, if it was actually possible to die from exhaustion.

I’m trying to learn how to be myself again, how to return to my life after having put everything on hold and given up my whole self to my job for the summer.  It is surprisingly hard to remember who I am.