Life is Like a Book of Chapters

You can’t skip chapters–that’s not how life works. You have to read every line, meet every character.

You won’t enjoy all of it. Hell, some chapters will make you cry for weeks. Longer.

You will read things you don’t want to read and have moments when you didn’t want the page to end. But you have to keep going. Stories keep the world revolving. Live yours. Don’t miss out.

These are thoughts and advice I wrote with a single person in mind, but I think it sounds broadly applicable, like a graduation speech for English majors (and others—I just work most closely with English majors). It was not received well. It was received with some gnashing of teeth and some pleading, and I get that, but there was nothing I could do but try to avoid repeating myself and offer a hug.

The good news is that most of the chapters are good. Most move your plot forward and expand your perspective and add to your character.

Most characters you meet are wonderful; some are helpful without being wonderful, and some are wonderful without being helpful. But many are wonderful and also make your life easier or happier or more productive.

At times when the global or national narrative seems overwhelmingly tragic and frustrating, I need to remember that those sweeping narratives are made up of millions of individual narratives, and the individual stories are usually more satisfying and more easily controlled.

And boy, are they wonderful. I know a retired teacher who stays active by volunteering in her daughter’s elementary classroom. I know a librarian who helps everyone she meets find something they need, from law code to job listings to availability of audio books—even when she’s not working. I know people who bake for others, who volunteer at shelters, who march and protest peacefully so that others can reap the benefits. People who crochet for penguin chicks, who clean up beaches, who work on cars, who lead classes at historical sites, who tell stories and sing songs and create art and offer guidance and shelter and support. 

All of those people have their own stories. They each contain their own constellation of memories and skills and heartbreaks and jokes. And all those stories add up to our larger narratives, so that when one person feels like one chapter of this book is too hard to live through, too overwhelming, too disheartening, it helps to twist the telescope a bit and focus on the microcosm, where examples of good work—of goodness itself—abound.

 So you can tag out—slap a hand on your way out of the ring and go home and restore yourself. Look at smaller scale narratives where, no doubt, great things are happening. But you can’t bow out completely, because all of the stories connect at some point, and we need your little one to help weave the big one we all share.

This is starting to sound trite (some may argue with the “starting to,” even), so I’ll close. But for those who could do with a reminder, stay for your story. Hug it tight. Live it large. And thanks for making the tapestry more beautiful.


The Little Things are the Big Things, vol. 2

In June of 2017 I blogged about a new personal mantra, The Little Things Are the Big Things. At that time I was thinking about it against a backdrop of Big Things:  graduations, weddings, births, and other milestones.

But this summer is rougher. This summer I am working harder to maintain my smile. So when I sit and muse on things that make me happy in the short term–things I could classify in my bullet journal under self-care–I come up with a new list of Little Things that I am trying to maximize or cultivate in my life.

The first thing is MORNINGS. My life runs on an academic calendar, so during the summer I am tempted to sleep in. For the first couple weeks I did pretty regularly, and it felt incredibly indulgent. Sleeping in definitely belongs on my list of Little Things that make me happy. But even more than sleeping in, I cherish the mornings I wake up but don’t have to go anywhere right away. These mornings I can make coffee and sit on my back patio. Something about a quiet, cool morning is even more restorative to me than extra sleep. My inner five year old still prefers waking to sleep; I don’t want to waste my time sleeping. But my inner octogenarian values the space and stillness and light and doesn’t need to play.

This morning in Diamond Bar. I have a sunflower pinwheel and caught a flock of birds on the wing.

The next thing is BOOKS. During the school year I read a lot, but it’s mostly texts for class, research, and email correspondence. I choose my books well, so I enjoy a lot of this, but email correspondence is rarely soul-stirring. In the summer I can read poetry with abandon, read novels I store up all year, sink in to non-fiction and learn something completely different. I do more internet reading than I ever plan to, but I also find something wonderful and unexpected every summer. In truth, I didn’t even get to the novels I put aside this year. I found more books and articles and comics serendipitously and read what I stumbled across instead. Maybe next summer.

DRINKS. During the school year, coffee is consumed like a vitamin. In the summer it gets to be an event. And I seriously had multiple tea parties this summer. I drove my kids to Camarillo for a formal one, but we also just had several times where a pot of tea was a focal point and everyone sat and enjoyed it together. I found myself chatting with friends and welcoming a new colleague with wine several times over the long, hot days, and my partner has started brewing his own beer, so home-brewed milk stout was a new delight. I did not see that coming, but he’s having so much fun and being so adorably industrious, everything about it is a small, good thing.

Lastly, which should be first, no doubt—PEOPLE. The generosity of friends and strangers never ceases to amaze me. People have sent me links and stories, jokes and support on social media. One of my favorite things about social media is how easy it is to be generous and thoughtful. How many more birthday wishes do we get now, for instance? And that’s just one aspect. Literally as I’m writing this, a friend recommended that I follow a favorite nature photographer. She thought of me and reached out, and on the one hand it’s a very little thing, but on the other it is not at all; someone I admire thinks fondly of me and knows me well enough to recognize something will give me lots of little moments of joy. That’s huge, actually.

Virtually-transmitted generosity (shall we call it e-generosity?) aside, I have also been the recipient of much very practical, physical goodness this summer. Sometimes it’s a small business operator adding a bonus to my purchase (I’m thinking of a lovely artist whose work I’ve bought before, and who this time included an extra piece for free). Sometimes it’s the really random fact that three separate women from quite different places in my life all gave me a big supply of cardstock. My hobby is papercrafting, and for no good reason at all, within a month I got so much raw material, I am thunderstruck—glimmery cardstock, colored cardstock, some scored, and envelopes of all sizes–all freely given to me with the hopes I could put it to use. I will. I promise.

All of this is to say that I feel very lucky, very fortunate, very blessed—however you conceive of that emotion. At a time when I’m deeply discouraged by the greed of institutions and people in power, countless individuals are working non-stop, like little unpaid elves, conspiring to bolster my faith in the magnanimity of my fellow humans.

There are many more examples, even from this summer, but I’ll stop there and invite you to take stock of the gestures of good will you have been shown this summer. May they be many. May they lift you up and lighten your load, and reveal themselves to be Big Things in Disguise.


On Iceland’s Yule Book Flood

I have loved Iceland since grad school. I took some Old Norse classes, read some Icelandic history, and even found a way to study one summer in Reykjavik, glacier-climbing and geyser-watching in person. The Icelandic language is quite conservative (read: “it hasn’t changed much”) due to isolation and intention, so folks who speak modern Icelandic can read Old Norse. And they do—Icelandic kids read sagas like American kids read Tall Tales. My favorite word in the world (which is saying a lot—I like a LOT of words) is the Icelandic noun uppivǫzlumaðr, which means a “pushy, contentious/tempestuous man.”
All of this awesomeness pales in comparison, though, to the best thing about modern Icelandic culture: the Yule Book Flood. On Christmas Eve in Iceland, people exchange books and turn in early to read and eat chocolate in bed. These are my people.
Iceland has always been exceptionally literate, producing long, complicated sagas and dense, interlocking poems since the Middle Ages, as well as vast corpuses of legal texts and proceedings. Today Iceland remains extremely literate, with more books printed per capita than any other country, and with one in ten people publishing a book.
The Yule Book Flood, though, has a little more to do with happenstance than spontaneous awesomeness. During World War II, strict restrictions on imported giftware made paper, which wasn’t taxed as highly, more desirable. So everyone started buying books for gifts, and it stuck.
On November 1st, the catalog of all the new books comes out and is delivered all over the country. Fiction and biography sell the most, so I love to imagine a whole nation settling down to storytime, chocolate in hand.
How do we bring this kind of book-love to the US? 
I once saw on Pinterest a cute idea of wrapping up a picture book for every day of Advent to read a special holiday story. That was great, and I bought a few new books for it and dug out some other, less recently read books, but it failed ultimately, because my kids were never satisfied with one picture book. They were used to five or more a night, so they wanted me to wrap five a night instead of this one-book nonsense. Thus ended the Book Advent tradition.
I do give books for holidays—birthdays and Christmas—but since they also get family presents on Christmas Eve at my house (an age-old Baker strategy to stretch out the holiday), we tend to play games on Christmas Eve together, not read books by ourselves.
But in the years to come, when our munchkins have established their own households and traditions, I see a Baby Book Flood in our future.Two little old married people snuggled down with new books (though Rob will likely be listening to his on ear buds or whatever replaces them) and plenty of chocolate. I’ll insist on the chocolate.
Happy holidays, everyone.
Living · Teaching

The Case for Joy, or the Other Side of Job

There is a significant thread in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales considering the issue of the biblical “Book of Job.” “The Clerk’s Tale” tells the story of Patient Griselda, a folk heroine often likened to Job. The Wife of Bath, in her Prologue, casts herself as Job’s wife, telling her husband to curse God and die. Other tales make reference more obliquely, but it is clear that it is a running trope, and that Chaucer keeps bringing it up from different angles invites us to ruminate on the lessons it teaches.

A painfully short summary of Job, so we’re all on the same page, is: Job is a wealthy man with a large family, and Satan tells God it’s only because of his many blessings that he is so devout; if God took away his gifts, Job would curse Him. God tests Job by having his crops fail, his children die, his body afflicted with sores—the works. His wife tells him to curse God. He does not. He does, however, question God, reporting that everyone around him thinks he must be pretty awful for God to be punishing him so. God even responds, and when He does, he explains that humans have too narrow a vision of suffering. It is not a result of sinning; it is character-building. God wins his bet, and Job gets everything back—even new kids.
Tonight it’s the narrow understanding of suffering that catches my attention. Do we need suffering to become our best selves? It certainly builds sympathy, but I like to think empathy can be developed through our imagination, not just experience. For tonight’s blog, my friends, you need to know that I am an incontrovertible happy-ass. (“Optimist” works too, but you lose the “happy,”and I’m not ok with that.)
I think we can imagine other people’s suffering and learn from it. Not as viscerally, certainly, but I don’t think we need to suffer everything to realize some things are terrible. I’ve never lost a limb, but I can imagine how that might change my life. I have had heart problems, but I don’t think I feel any more deeply for others with heart problems than for those who’ve lost limbs.
You can feel free to argue with me on this point, but if you wait, I’ll give you another one to argue. I want to consider the opposite conjecture tonight. We may have too narrow an understanding of suffering, but if so, we also suffer from an inadequate appreciation of joy.
If suffering builds character, joy defines it. The things that give us joy are the things that make us unique. You can’t choose what gives you joy any more than you can choose whom you love or whether or not you like brussels sprouts (I do—they make me feel like a giant Mopsy Rabbit raiding Mr McGregor’s garden), so we kind of identify and understand ourselves by those affinities.
When we feel joy, when we’re super giddy and delighted, we seem to sport a sort of shield against the world’s woes. When I’m on my way to class to teach a text I particularly love, I bounce a little and dance a little and smile really broadly. Mostly it’s infectious, but sometimes it’s disconcerting for folks. But that just entertains me more because I’m already in joy-mode, so my shield is up and other people’s lack of understanding doesn’t dim me at all. You know the geeks who get all goofy when they talk about what they love; that’s what I’m talking about.
There is power there.
The smaller moments of joy matter too—what the Danish call “hygge,” or cozy delight. They mean the warm, fuzzy feeling you get wearing warm, fuzzy slippers in front of a fire while drinking something warm and (not fuzzy) delicious. The point is clear. We use the metaphors because the physical feelings are so deep. That is joy too, if calm and simmering rather than bouncy and electric.
Another thing joy does for us, in addition to helping us understand how we are unique, is it allows us to make connections with other people. When we meet someone who likes the same things we do, we immediately feel a bond. English majors, for instance, how many of you form an instantaneous  attachment when you see someone in the wide world reading a book you love? I know best friends who have been besties for decades because they bonded over a particular book. If it speaks to both of you, you must be in some way the same.
We are, all of us–in lots of ways–the same.
When we find something that gives us joy and we meet someone else who also loves it, that’s enough to forge a connection. When we meet folks who love something we don’t really get, we can still react to the feeling, still sponge a little vicarious joy, and (ideally) encourage them to keep on loving it.
Joy produces joy. It also makes us healthier. There’s lots of research on this, some of which is summarized very briefly in the UC Berkeley Greater Good article linked at the bottom of this piece. But the evidence is piling up. If we don’t give enough thought to how suffering helps us, we also don’t recognize the profound impacts of joy. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe the point is just to feel it, not to analyze it to death. But if we understood it a little more, maybe we would make choices that put us in joy’s path more often. That seems like a good project.
Find what you love. Get it; do it; be it–boldly. Help others do the same. I’m off to read a book in my fuzzy slippers.
Also the cocoa picture is mine, but the picture of the young ladies, Mopsy, Flopsy, and Cottontail is, of course, from Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”

A Summer Story

Today I am struck by the pathological need we have for stories. Maybe it’s just at our house, but a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry tells me it’s pretty universal.
It’s summer, and the last one before my eldest munchkin flies the coop, in whatever way he chooses to do so after graduation next year. He’s particularly keen to fill this summer with all the fun he possibly can, sure as he is that this is the end of an era, and from now on he’ll be working for the man, unable to have anywhere near this amount of fun ever again, so long as he lives. (I have not disabused him of this notion, at least not significantly.)
What he chooses to spend his time on, primarily, is stories. He plays video games with storylines (and his sister and dad play many of the same ones, so they often talk on our dog walks, for instance, about how far they are in whatever game, and who they’ve met and where their character is going).
He plays the fantasy game “Dungeons and Dragons,” as well as the more sci-fi “Mutants and Masterminds.” We play board games, most of which have a story element to them. This summer has been dominated by “Betrayal at House on the Hill,” which offers multiple narratives, so the story is different each time.
And he reads. Some of the books he reads come from his games—like WarHammer 40K or Dungeons and Dragons, but lots of them don’t.
We don’t watch much television; in fact, I’ve watched more than anyone else, and I’m the one who loves to hate tv. But then I don’t play video games. When I do watch tv, I’m looking for interesting, well-developed characters, some I can identify with, and something new and funky that I can learn about, either from the setting or the character development. My last two ‘fixes’ have been set in Australia and the Carribbean, for instance, places I’ve never been.
The point is, when given a break, we have all in our various ways, stuffed our hours full of narratives. We have chosen stories over lots of other options for our summer. Some of the options have been taken off the menu this summer due to health and family issues, so maybe this is therapy. Yeah. That makes sense.
When we have down time–when we need down time–we fill our days and our minds with stories. And they seem to be all we need.  Both kids have commented on what a relaxing summer it’s been, despite the deaths of two family members and a mom in the hospital in the last few months.
They’re not wrong. The ability to escape to another world, whether we’re an active participant, as in a video game, or dragged along (swept away?) by a novelist or screenwriter, lets us come back to our own world refreshed.  Either we’ve seen how problems can be solved, or we’ve actively helped solve them. Either way, stories make us stronger, smarter. Better.

Viva summer.