Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Teacher Got Taught

Salem courthouse: AKA my house on any given day. I am the crazy lady standing on the bench, about to pounce. My children are the three cowering behind the bench and my husband is the man with his hands held out - in calming or surrender, hard to tell. Yea...

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if you are teaching a lesson, you are also going to learn it...often personally. And usually that's ok with me, I feel like it benefits me to have examples and personal reference to teach from and my hard headedness often makes this my most effective way of learning. I think an extent of transparency (appropriately of course) makes teaching more effective. The two or three years I taught character education in Junior High are remembered well for this in my mind.

However, this time it's bittersweet. I am thankful for the reminder of a lesson I am trying to learn, but not thrilled with the source. Ok, so somewhat thrilled, because the media the source comes through is a book, but the topic of the book is not pleasing. My current life change deals with breaking my habit of living in survivor mode...I wrote about it in December (see here) and how life had to change. 

It's easy to get stuck in a rut. When life is busy - full time jobs, schooling, small children, and the odds and ends of life - you find what works and you go with it. Making it to the next day as close to in tact as possible is all that comes to matter. The Puritans were good at this - living in the rut. (Now don't anyone go getting offended. Ain't nobody got time for that! I'm not going to slam the Puritans based on any belief in God, but I have a beef with their legalism and some misinterpretation of the Bible.)

Anyway, I've taught The Scarlet Letter twice and The Crucible last year. If you've got a decent grasp on the Bible, it's easy to see where these people went wrong when it came to being Christian-like (yes, I'm generalizing and no, I haven't forgotten the plank in my eye...just judging the fruit, or lack thereof). So I am no fan of the Puritans, especially all that Salem witchcraft stuff! Read it if you haven't, it will make you sick to know this really happened. (And even more so when you understand the parallelism to 1950s McCarthyism.) 

Have I thoroughly established my disgust with the Puritans? Yea, so, they are the ones who I learned my lesson from, so to speak. Yea, sucks. 

Here and there in the first act, Arthur Miller (author of The Crucible) breaks in with narrative details about the lives of the Puritans and some specific characters. A couple weeks ago my classes began reading The Crucible and I read one of these excerpts in the introduction of Act I. It talked about how the Puritans' strict laws, work ethic, and religion is what allowed them to survive the harshness of the new land. Without these structures in place, they would have died off, as many of the earlier riches-seeking settlers before them had.

Interesting...the Puritans were in survivor mode. They knew what needed to happen to keep living and they never looked back. I know the feeling! However, once established, the weight of their laws and religion became heavier than the possible dangers against survival. In other words, they had reached a point where they could chillax, but they didn't. They kept right on trucking with their heavy handed rules (without the  love, grace, and mercy Jesus teaches) until the system began to break under the weight of a perfection they could never attain. Hence, the Salem witch trials as the ultimate breaking point.

Sadly, in the past my house has taken on what I imagine was the look and feel of the courthouse in Salem. I am realizing that the strict rules that are easily imposed upon young children (because it doesn't matter much to them at that point) will no longer work with my new teen and preteen. There is a balance to find - between order and my responsibilities as a parent and the growing individual freedom my children should naturally take on. I'm determined to be intentional about life, to change the rules or look at them a little more leniently when called for, and to show love at all times. Will I fail at times? Of course, as the Puritans teach us, it is not possible to be perfect, but that's what God's unconditional love, grace, and mercy are for.

Any books unexpectedly teaching you a lesson lately?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ruined by Reading

Just finished an absolute gem of a book. Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, is a memoir about how her life was affected by books and reading. It may seem silly to so enjoy a book that is about reading, but to hear your own thoughts and feelings on a subject you so dearly love written by a woman who was born at the onset of WWII - 40 years before you - is the ultimate "I'm not alone!" feeling. (Of course, my book buddies are good for this too ;) 

Schwartz talks about her avid readership starting at age 3. She found much of her thoughts and wonders about herself and life confirmed through stories she encountered. Books taught her lessons and one she points out in this memoir I can relate to...Passion. And I don't mean passion as in a love of something, but passion as in exploding and freaking out about stuff. Not only can I relate to it, but it is a current revelation in my personal life. I've been reading books on the topic, trying to make changes in myself for about four months. In her favorite childhood book, The Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1905. You may better recognize her book The Secret Garden), the main character Sara is thrust into many situations with a loud and intimidating adult. Being a child there isn't much she can do, but even with feelings bouncing inside, this is the wisdom the character Sara imparts to the reader:

          "I don't answer very often. I never answer when I can help it. When people are 
          insulting you, there is nothing so good for them as not to say a word - just look at 
          them and think...When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger 
          than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage...There's nothing 
          so strong as rage except what makes you hold it in - that's stronger" (49).

Talking about how reading this affected her, Schwartz relates her personal experience: "I heard a great deal of rage - vocal and terrifying - when I was small; in a way my household was not what I could call ordinary. And I thought rage must be powerful. It was certainly loud. I have spent the rest of my life learning that loudness is not a show of strength, and that the spirit is kept alive by trust in the inner voice and by holding firmly to the unnamed thing that Sara found at age eleven: the stronger thing that makes you hold rage in" (49-50).

I am awed. I've read two most helpful books by author Lysa TerKeurst in the past couple weeks. One, titled Unglued, is on this idea of flying into a passion - she calls it exploding or stuffing, depending on which you do. The other book, Capture His Heart, is about how to be a better wife, and no, it's nothing insulting to women, just really good pointers on all of the topics of marriage and what makes men tick. Page after page of these two books hit me, as if I were being painted on the page...I half expected to see my name in the dedication! Before this I had read Give Them Grace about raising kids. And then I pick up Schwartz's book and see not only how others have been personally affected by reading, but also that the very example she uses from a book affects me so personally too? It reaffirms my belief in books.

And on another note, Schwartz and I share a common memory problem, which she discusses in her memoir. Neither of us can remember what we read last week in any amount of worthwhile detail. I've always lamented this. Schwartz thinks through the reasoning of reading in light of this fact. If reading is not the main transformation of life (after all characters can be pretty messed up people), and not the amassing of knowledge (because she forgets the details of content soon after), and not to pass time (there are so many ways to do that more actively/quickly), then reading has to be for the opposite live and be still in the moment. 

She describes it as "unlike other classic activities of the reading, the body is still. Indeed what reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head-on. The dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life's lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present. So I see, finally, why it hardly matters whether I remember the contents of a book. Mere information is nothing compared to this silent flurry" (115-116).

Yes! This may seem off topic, but it is the connection I make to this quote. I am able to talk and listen to someone with my utmost attention for hours at a time...and I don't mean just on the topic of books, but life in general. I can become utterly engaged in conversations, asking questions and talking through possibilities. The discussion continues in my head long after and I usually end up with more to discuss on the topic. I am living that present moment and making the most of it...sometimes trying to understand or grasp something just out of reach. Over the few years I've realized this about myself, I've found few people, even fewer friends for that matter, able to deal and/or keep up with this side of me. Mostly, I get the smile and nod or change of subject because people want to take it easy, which I can understand. However, there have been a couple friends/family who accused me of being difficult and needy. I took this very hard the first time it was said because the people saying it were not shallow, whatever types of people. I really thought it through and took a good look around me. If it was truth, I didn't want that to be how people saw me. I started asking other people if this was how they saw me and having now found a set a friends who can sit with me for hours and talk and care, I know that this not a problem I have to fix. Maybe just a quirk I have to curb around certain types of people or in certain situations. When I have a problem, or just something to talk about, I know these friends are there and will truly listen, help, and check in with me.

As for the rest of the connection to the above quote, want to know what is amusing about this set of friends? It's a small group and they are all so very different in many ways, but have one thing in common. They're readers.

How does reading contribute to your life? Any great connections you've made with a book lately?

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Whole Story

A different post than usual today because it takes a bit of listing rather than conversational writing to make the point, so hang in there. I read two things this week that got me thinking about the journey a story takes throughout time...mostly beloved classics, which is why they are classics I guess. How is it that one story can become so much to generation after generation? What? You don't think it happens? Ok, let's start with the first item I read. It was an article on a new book that is Pride and Prejudice from a servant's point of view. I have no idea what to expect, but I'm not getting my hopes up! Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813) is still wildly popular 200 years later. There have been a number of movies made off of this one book, one of the most popular being the 1995 BBC version starring Colin Firth (my favorite). On Goodreads I found a list of at least 100 books written off of the character of Mr. Darcy!

Need more than one example of the power of one story? Consider Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Huck Finn itself is a spin off of Tom Sawyer. Besides the movies made, as recent as one that should be released this year(!), there have been spin off books such as Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher (Lenore Hart, 2008).  In this book Becky, once Tom Sawyer's love, sets out to set her story straight...a story that she claims Mark Twain had all wrong. Another spin off is Finn (Jon Clinch, 2008). This is the story of Huck's father, which we all know will end with Finn's dead body floating down the Mississippi in an abandoned house.

And what about Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936)? Besides the very well known 1939 movie starring Clark Gable,  Alice Randall wrote the servant's perspective, called The Wind Done Gone (2001), where she gives the most likely view the black servant would have taken in the antebellum South. There was even a lawsuit that tried to prevent Houghton Mifflin from publishing the book. Another spin off written by Donald McCaig in 2007 was Rhett Butler's People. The book is a parallel to the events of Gone With the Wind, but from Rhett's point of view. This book was fully supported as an official companion novel by the Margaret Mitchell estate, although I have not heard good things about it from my circle of reader friends.

So what? A couple movies, a random spin off here and there? Not convinced? Let's look at, and really break down, the second reading that brought this all to my mind this week.

As we've seen, all you need is one original story as a starting point, for example The Wonderful Wizard of Oz series (14+ books) by L. Frank Baum. I read a post from The Paperback Princess today (Out of Oz) where she talks about her take on the many books Gregory Maguire has written off of Baum's world. Let's consider the whole body of work.

Let's start with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and subsequent books, written by Baum between the years of 1900-1920, with an additional book in 1972 (a few of the books were written but not published). In 1939 the original movie, The Wizard of Oz, was released starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. Subsequent movies are: The Wiz (1978), Return to Oz (1985), Tin Man (2007) and The Witches of Oz (2011) were both mini series, Dorothy and the Witches of Oz (2012), and a TV series called Wicked (2012).

Between the 1985 and 2007 TV versions came Gregory Maguire's books. It's a set of four books called "The Wicked Years": Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), Son of a Witch (2005), A Lion Among Men (2008), and Out of Oz (2011). There was also a musical titled Wicked (2003), which was based off of Maguire's first book.

This year sees a few more Oz stories on the way: Oz the Great and Powerful comes out in March. Others listed for 2013 release are Dorothy of Oz and Oz Wars. And within the next couple years another slate of movies will release. In 2014 the musical based movie of Wicked will release. I am personally excited about this one! They did a great job with the movie version of Phantom of the Opera. Also, a remake of the original 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz...this one will have me on the edge of my seat, as very little can usually compare with the sentimentality and nostalgia of the original. As of yet undated releases are Oz, Oz: Return to Emerald City, and Surrender Dorothy.

See what I mean? Look at the sheer amount of work put into one original story 100+ years after the fact. What is it about a set of characters, a place, and the events that unfold that keep us coming back for more? I don't know if I can explain it, but I feel it. People from different generations over time have felt something deep enough for these stories to create their own interpretations. Good or bad, all pieces add to the original story, making it larger than life.

I love to read books with many renditions. Do you know of any other novels with spin offs? I'm interested!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I'm Still Here

No, I didn't forget I have a blog. I've simply been doing what I do best...reading. I've already read 11 books this year, with number 12 about 80% done. Now of course, some of them are rather short, like Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life" and Anna Quindlen's "How Reading Changed My Life." I discovered I still don't care for Dillard and that although Quindlen and I had a rocky first meeting over an abortion essay in my undergrad years, we definitely agree when it comes to the effect books can have in a person's life.

So according to Goodreads, I am six books ahead of schedule to completing my year reading goal of 50 books. And like I predicted on my reading list for 2013 post, I've already strayed from my list. Five of the eleven are books outside of my target list...four of those five are...dum, dum, dum....ebooks! That's right, free ebooks on Amazon have proven useful. During my lunch duty, I pull up one of my beautifully free ebooks and read intermittently as I watch the students eat lunch. In this way I've discovered Lysa TerKeurst and her two books about changing yourself as a way to better your relationships: "Unglued" and "Capture His Heart." In both books she mentions leaving survival mode and living life...totally confirmed my previous post about Survivor Mode. I wasn't just making stuff up! TerKeurst's an insightful Christian writer and I think her books will prove beneficial.

My second new discovery was Mary Leonhardt. She was an English educator for 30+ years and her books are in e-version for the purpose of being accessibly priced for educators and anyone who will listen to what she believes is the downfall of literacy in our education system and our country. The titles of her books should give you a hint about how she feels about the education system: "The 7 Toxic Reading Myths that are Killing School Reform" and "How to Teach a Love of Reading Without Getting Fired." I've tried placing a few of her ideas into my classroom, but I think starting fresh with her ideas next year will give me a better idea of how well they work. (She basically believes in inundation of reading, both in class and out...I'm all for that.)  I agree with what you have to say Mary, but there's only so much a girl can do.

And last, but not least, I finally met Mr. Gladwell in Outliers. Very interesting perspectives and I'm pretty sure I agree with him. He kind of believes along my definition of luck = where preparation meets opportunity. People get a chance at something and they are willing to work at it diligently and hence they are successful. So success is not a matter of being the best and brightest, but the opportunities your circumstances happened to give you (or not) at important points in life and what you did with those opportunities. I say I'm pretty sure I agree with Gladwell because I think there's another layer to this. I do believe that hard work at the right time(s) will bring success, but I also believe that God creates that path and leads us down it if we will pay attention and follow. I don't believe in coincidence.

So here's to the rest of February and the good reads that will come my way...starting with "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

Have you read anything really eye catching or found a new author in the New Year? Sell me...I have no problem reading off the intended list, if it's interesting enough to lure me away ;)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Les Miserables was anything but...

For the longest time my favorite book has been To Kill a Mockingbird. That changed by the end of December when I finished Les Miserables. It took me a month to read, but only because my kids think they have to eat and apparently my body does like to sleep. I also bought the soundtrack, saw the musical in Pittsburgh, and saw the movie twice - all after reading the book, of course.

There are so many things going on in this book, I could do a multiple posting; however, one specific idea captivated me throughout the book...the idea that we are all equally in need of a savior. The characters Jean Valjean and Javert play out as perfect parallels to the Bible's New Testament disciples Peter and Judas.

We meet Jean Valjean first. He is on parole after nineteen years in prison for stealing bread and subsequent attempts to escape. The man is not a hardened criminal, but was simply trying to keep his sister's children from starving. However, nineteen years of slave labor harden him and he hardly knows who he is upon release. He steals twice more and lands himself in trouble, until confronted with the loving kindness of Bishop Myriel, who gives him a second chance in the form of an alibi of sorts. Valjean's hardened heart is softened, almost against his will because he can't believe a world that seems to hate him could contain a glimpse of hope. He realizes that he is a fallen man in need of something outside of himself to live. The musical's lyrics capture this idea when Valjean sings:

                                                         I am reaching, but I fall
                                                        And the night is closing in
                                                        And I stare into the void
                                                        Into the whirlpool of my sin
                                                        I'll escape now from the world
                                                        From the world of Jean Valjean
                                                        Jean Valjean is nothing now
                                                        Another story must begin!

A new story indeed. A story of the power of forgiveness, grace, and mercy working in a person's life. Throughout the remainder of the book, Valjean is the epitome of sainthood. Although he struggles with doing right at times, he remembers the grace and mercy extended to himself and chooses to do the right thing at every turn. Valjean's likeness is found in the Bible through Peter, who betrayed Christ by denying him three times, but went on to become a cornerstone of the Christian faith and its spread throughout the nations. They chose life through Christ's salvation when confronted with the filth of themselves.

Javert, the officer who hunts the life time parole breaking Valjean, is a man who follows the letter of the law. Javert's past, being born in a prison, drives him to be better and perfection and absolute justice. He holds himself to impossible standards and expects everyone else to fall in line. There is no room for error and he even offers to resign his job when he falsely accuses Monsieur Mayor of being Valjean, after leading a dead end investigation on his suspicion. (Ironically, Monsieur Mayor IS Valjean and Javert is extended grace and allowed to keep his job.) Even when Valjean spares Javert's life in the middle of the revolution later in the story, Javert swears he will continue to hunt Valjean, despite his good deed.

By the end of the book, Javert and Valjean meet again. Valjean is in the process of saving a young man's life and begs Javert to simply allow him to get the man to a doctor and then he will go along quietly. Javert initially resists, but then the memory of his own spared life forces him to realize that perhaps Valjean is a changed man, that maybe it is possible that forgiveness, grace, and mercy hold merit. Faced with the possibility that he has worked against the very things for which he wanted to be known all his life - goodness and justice - Javert's thoughts parallel Valjean's in the beginning of the book with the realization of his fallen nature. The musical lines it up beautifully with Javert singing a similar verse to what Valjean sang in the beginning:

                                                               I am reaching but I fall
                                                               And the stars are black and cold
                                                               As I stare into the void
                                                               Of a world that I cannot hold
                                                               I'll escape now from that world
                                                               From the world of Jean Valjean
                                                               There is nowhere I can turn
                                                               There is no way to go on...

And with those thoughts, Javert jumps from a bridge into the Seine. He cannot handle the fact that his efforts to live as a just man were legalistic and backwards and that, in the end, he was as filthy as the life time convict Jean Valjean. Javert too has a counterpart in the Bible. Judas betrayed Jesus, selling his whereabouts for 30 pieces of silver. When the deed is actually carried out and Judas comes to realize what he has done, he cannot stand himself and hangs himself. They saw nothing but hopelessness and chose death when confronted with the filth of themselves.

Les Miserables's possibilities for discussion are endless and this is simply one theme (I'd argue the most important) that stood out to me. Les Mis's ultimate stand for the Hope of tomorrow is what endears itself to me.