“They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing—self revelation” (Their Eyes Were Watching God, page 7).
I can’t stop thinking about Zora Neale Hurston’s words. Self-revelation. The oldest human longing. At the beginning of the novel, Janie returns home after a year-and-a-half absence. Pheoby wants to live vicariously through her friend, but she doesn’t want to come across as nosy. Janie wants nothing more than to tell her story. The rest of the novel is that story.
And that’s friendship—telling our stories, sharing our burdens, gaining self-awareness and insight through processing. But what about blogging? I suppose self-revelation, regardless of form, comes from a longing to connect.
I wrestle with what to share on the blog…with oversharing…crossing boundaries…telling stories that might not be mine to tell. I’m sure I could pick up the phone and share more with my friends and family. Then there’s the part about being an introvert and exhausted at the end of my days and weeks and recharging my energy through my quiet time. And there’s the part about not knowing what to say until the words appear on the page. I often find answers inside my heart all along.
As I re-read Their Eyes Were Watching God, I’m contemplating more this time through Janie’s journey and self-discovery.
Last week started with a recurring thought from Maya Angelou’s mother. She was always…
I want to be like that. Unfazed by whatever happens.
Another thought came from the Book of Proverbs…
I want to be like that. Strong and Dignified. Fearless and Joyful.
Meanwhile, I’ll name it and claim it.
When Saturday rolled around, I mindlessly scrolled Facebook when a book caught my eye:
The post said, “Found this book in our move. Everyone could use a little more positive in their life! Ready to apply this with my family, friends, and students! If you’ve read this, what was your biggest take away?”
I read the book about five years ago and remembered the part about energy vampires. I pulled the book from my shelf and flipped to that chapter. These words jumped off the page: “If you want to be successful you have to be very careful about who is on your bus. After all there are people who increase your energy and there are people who drain your energy…Your job is to do your best to eliminate any negativity on your bus and this includes negative people.” Noted.
Charles Dickens once wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” What a paradox! Our times can be both the best and the worst. Let’s choose our focus.
Alexandre Dumas once wrote: “Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.” The storms of life happen—bad weather, catastrophes, flat tires, politics, rude people, illness, death—and when storms happen, I protect my energy.
I seek out good. I redirect my thoughts. I choose faith and gratitude, peace and hope.
There’s energetic power in the thoughts we carry. And energy, good or bad, travels. It transfers into our cells and to our loved ones. I don’t know about you, but my molecular make-up, my loved ones, too, could use some good energy. So, today I’m thinking good thoughts—for you and me—strong, dignified, fearless, joyful thoughts. Pass it on.
I was home on the couch on a Saturday. While watching Anne with an “E,” I tapped affirmation after affirmation into my phone. The whole series radiates girl power, especially Season 3, Episode 5, “I Am Fearless and Therefore Powerful.”
In this episode, the kids practice for the upcoming barn dance at school. It reminded me of the time in fifth grade when we learned to square dance for a hoe down in the gym with parents invited. I was mortified about touching the boys’ hands and refused to dance. Then, my music teacher sent me to the principal’s office for invoking my right to choose. But wait, I had no rights. Click here for that story. In the same way, while dancing with boys as part of school, the girls in Anne with an “E” are plagued with fears about becoming pregnant via touching the boys. During a secret, moonlit bonfire ceremony, Anne and her friends meet and invoke the Goddess of Beltane (representative of fertility), Sacred Mother, Queen of May, Wild Lady of the Woods, and Guardian of Love and Life. Wearing white nightgowns and floral wreaths atop their heads, the girls dance around the fire, proclaim their affirmations, and release their fears:
“We shall choose whom to love and with whom to share trust.”
“We shall walk upon this earth with grace and respect.”
“We’ll always take pride in our great intellect.”
“We’ll honor our emotions so our spirits may soar!”
“And should any man belittle us, we’ll show him the door!”
“Our spirits are unbreakable, our imaginations free!”
“Walk with us, Goddess, so blessed are we!”
The Netflix series is based on the Anne of Green Gables book series, set on Prince Edward Island in Canada, 1899. I haven’t read the books, but now I’m curious. Did L. M. Montgomery write with this feminist spin? Or is this a modern retelling? Either way, I love how Anne appreciates the little things and lives in the moment. Of course, she is human and feisty and has her bad days. Don’t we all?
More great quotes from the show:
“Grace is perennial like the green, green grass.”
“No one but you is allowed to dictate what you’re worth.”
For my 2022 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I set my goal at thirty books. As of May, this teacher had fallen behind her own self-imposed schedule. So, as my grading wound down for the year and summer approached, I committed to flipping extra pages and finishing the unread books on my shelves. Funny how some of these books have faded already to a distant memory. Here are some snippets:
Considered a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and regarded as influential in both African American literature and women’s literature, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in rural Florida in the early part of the 20th century. After two marriages, Janie finally finds love, her voice, and ultimately herself. A co-worker recommendation. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read this one before now. I gave it 5 of 5 stars on Goodreads and plan to use it in the classroom next year.
“She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
The winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is the story of a lesser-known novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging and loneliness, creativity and grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, and a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy. This was a re-read for me, the last book of the school year for my students, and 5 stars on Goodreads.
“I’ve got a theory. Now hear me out. It’s that our lives are half comedy and half tragedy. And for some people, it just works out that the first entire half of their lives is tragedy and then the second half is comedy.”
Andrew Sean Greer, Less
The winner for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys follows the life of Elwood Curtis, unjustly arrested through a cruel twist of fate and sentenced to a Florida reform school in the 1960’s. Based on the Dozier School for Boys with a 111-year history of cruelty, abuse, and murder, the novel sheds light on the current reality of the United States. I listened to this one on Audible during my commute and wished that I had read it with my eyes. Still, I gave in 5 stars.
“Even in death the boys were trouble.”
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, shortly before Wilde’s imprisonment for indecency. With mistaken and hidden identities, the flip-flopping of truth and lies, Wilde’s most-beloved play satirizes the superficiality of Victorian England and the snobbery of the aristocracy. Some of the absurd and witty banter might have gone over my head, so I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. However, Wilde made me think about earnestness and duality, so I’ll give this one another chance.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
The favorite novel of one of my fellow English teachers, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven did not disappoint. Published in 2014, this post-apocalyptic tale takes place before and after the “Georgia Flu” pandemic, which kills most of the population, and follows a troupe of nomadic Shakespearean actors across the Great Lakes region. The weaving of time and plot lines pushed Station Eleven up into the 5 range for me.
“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Published in Swedish during 2012 and in English the following year, Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove depicts the story of a grumpy, hopeless 59-year-old man, who grieves the love of his life. Ove annoyed me at times but reminded me that no feeling is final, and I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I gave it 4 stars.
“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.”
Fredrik Backman, AMan Called Ov
I started Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose back in January. Not necessarily a fun read, but not finishing was not an option. I most appreciated Part 3 on the lyricism, melody, and rhythm of writing and rated this book 3 stars on Goodreads.
A dependence on is and its family screams “rough draft.”
Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave.
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail tells the story of losing her mother, divorcing her husband, and shooting up heroin for a while before setting off on an 1100-mile, solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, ultimately, a journey of self-forgiveness, strength, and redemption. 4 stars.
What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to f* every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Another co-worker favorite and a best-known of Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class woman in post first world war England, with a parallel story of a war veteran, Septimus Smith. I have no doubt I missed some nuance in meaning; however, Woolf’s exquisite stream-of-consciousness prose warrants a 5 and a re-read one day.
It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Inspired by the story of a Belgian woman who assisted downed Allied pilots to escape Nazi territory, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingaleportrays the storylines of two French sisters during World War II. A good story of love and survival, less-authentic than other works of historical fiction, 4 stars.
But love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.
Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
Anne Lamott wished her father had written down everything he had learned while alive, so just before her sixty-first birthday, she made a list of her own for her grandson and niece. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is classic Anne Lamott, somewhat repetitive if you’ve read much of her, but quotable nevertheless. And I’m a fan of hope. 3 stars.
John Lennon said, ‘Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end,’ and as this has always been true before, we can hope it will be again.
Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
Dawn of the Silver Moon (Shawnee Friends Mission #1) by Margaret Mendenhall (my former Sunday school teacher and wedding pianist) depicts the life of a Quaker girl living in Kansas territory in the 1840s. Shawnee Indians abduct Lucy in an act of vengeance toward her father, and she builds a bridge between cultures through her faith. There were times when I told myself, “That’s impossible,” but by the end, I felt that nothing is impossible with God. 4 stars.
I think…I just heard God speak to me…He said, ‘Be not afraid. It is not as it seems. All things will work together for good to those who are called according to my purpose.’
Margaret Mendenhall, Dawn of the Silver Moon
For years I’ve followed the story of Maggie Doyne, a girl from New Jersey who took a gap year after high school. During her travels, the trajectory of her life dramatically alters when she has a surprise encounter with a Nepali girl breaking rocks in a quarry. At age nineteen, Maggie invests her life savings of five thousand dollars to buy a piece of land and open a children’s home and school in Nepal. Maggie Doyne’s memoir Between the Mountain and the Sky: A Mother’s Story of Love, Loss, Healing, and Hope is a coming-of-age story that shows how ordinary people have the power to change the world. An inspirational 5 stars.
No matter where I go, I always seem to end up in places like this one—alleyways, outskirts, trash heaps—the back pockets of a place where less desirable things and people get stuffed away. I’ve been traveling all over he South Pacific and living in India on my gap year, but still, a mix of sadness, fear, and shame hits me under my tongue every time I see these hidden, tucked-away places. Little kids go to work in some places. They’re porters, laborers on construction sites, domestics, agricultural workers. Watching them work is jarring—watching them work with a smile, even more so. The girl pulls herself up, shakes the pebble from her skirt, and sizes up a new hunk of shale.
Maggie Doyne, Between the Mountain and the Sky
I’m always thinking about my next book and still have some waiting on my shelf. Dare I ask what you’ve been reading?
June turned July, and I committed to a ten-day cleanse. I said to myself, I can do anything for ten days. Even so, it took me a minute to commit. The unsaturation diet idea came from a book I read listened to on Audible, Dr. Habib Sadeghi’s The Clarity Cleanse.
As a twenty-one-year-old medical student, Sadeghi was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He ran into his anatomy partner right after receiving the news. His friend said something like, “You don’t look so good.”
Sadeghi told him about the cancer.
His friend said, “Let’s go get lunch.” During their conversation, the friend asked Sadeghi how he was feeling.
Sadeghi thought he was going to die.
His friend said, “I don’t know the God you believe in, but the God I believe in is a loving God. You’re going to be okay.”
During that lunch, Sadeghi’s entire perspective changed.
Sadeghi took a medical school sabbatical and traveled the world studying the power of thoughts, words, and alternative medicine. He studied the psychology theories of Wilfred Bion, who coined the terminology of container and contained. Every element of thought or emotion has either a projective/masculine component or a receptive/feminine component, so when a baby (or anyone) is angry, hurt, fearful—all they need is someone who understands. And when a container is there, the cycle of emotion is complete. I’m fascinated by this idea.
Sadeghi studied eastern and western medical practices and later studied Spiritual Psychology with Emphasis in Consciousness, Health, and Healing. He started paying attention to what he put in his mouth and how he processed his emotions. He started an exercise called PEW 12 (Purge Emotional Writing, click here for more). He learned self-containment in this way and the belief that thoughts have power and that anything is possible. He practiced forgiveness, mindfulness, and slowing down. Do you see why I like him?
Through CAT scans every three months, Sadeghi monitored his levels of cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol prepare our bodies for fight or flight responses. Too much cortisol plays a role in inflammation and stress. As his cortisol dropped, he produced a higher level of immunity.
All of this leads me to my ten-day cleanse or Intentional Unsaturation Diet. I only have one body. I might as well take care of it. The ten days are heavy on lemon water, red or pink apples, sardines, and brown rice.
I had never tried a sardine in my life and didn’t care to start. I kept an open mind and read about the benefits of sardines. I’m no expert. I learned from Dr. Sadeghi. Purine proteins support cellular reconstruction, enzymatic function, and DNA repair. Calcium (from chewable bones) and Vitamin D support bone health, nerve and muscle function, and regulation of cellular activity. Vitamin B12 supports cardiovascular health. Omega-3 fatty acids are an anti-inflammatory. They reduce cholesterol and triglycerides and reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. They support fluidity and integrity of cell membranes, building blocks for hormones.
Apples reduce cholesterol and risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and diabetes. They function as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and aid in hormone balancing (help correct estrogen dominance). They provide energy and tissue hydration. They detoxify, reduce gallbladder stress, reduce cholesterol and triglycerides, increase HDL (good cholesterol), reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, and help maintain healthy body weight.
I think I’ll stop typing and go eat an apple. My favorite is the Honeycrisp, but I’m liking the Pink Lady apples, too. Dr. Sadeghi suggests slicing (or grating) your apples and allowing them to turn brown (or oxidize). I think he said that oxidation breaks down the sugar. Don’t quote me.
As for the brown rice, it digests slowly to keep blood sugar levels stable and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. It also helps protect against from free radical damage and reduces cancer risk. The fiber detoxifies, reduces gallbladder stress, cholesterol, risk of cardiovascular disease, and helps to maintain healthy body weight.
For lemon water. Wash your lemons and chop. Add to boiling water (one lemon per quart or litre). Cover and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and steep for 15 minutes more. Strain and drink all day long.
Ten days of lemon water broke my morning coffee habit. I didn’t even miss my coffee, which I normally drink with added decadence. However, I did lay off of all caffeine for about a week before I started. Benefits? Lemons stimulate better digestion. They cleanse your liver, kidneys, and blood. They are a good source of vitamin C, folate, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
More than anything, I write this as a note to self. I actually love the lemon water. I could go the quicker route, and I have, no boiling, just squeeze the lemon, but I especially like it hot.
Ten-Day Intentional Unsaturation Diet
Other than the emphasized foods above, the diet includes all poultry (white meat), fish and shellfish, egg whites, all vegetables (no legumes), all fresh fruit, olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs.
Days 1/2: Anything listed above.
Day 3: Avoid animal proteins. Anything else listed.
Days 4/5: Only brown rice, apples, and sardines. Use in moderation: herbs, salt and pepper, lemon, Bragg Aminos, ginger, garlic, scallions, onion.
Day 6: Fast. No food. Drink lemon water. I fasted 24 hours and ate around 8 PM that evening. I had never fasted in my life. Until now.
Day 7: Brown rice, apples, and sardines as above.
Day 8: Avoid animal proteins as above.
Days 9/10: Anything listed above.
I liked Dr. Habib Sadeghi’s The Clarity Cleanse quite a lot. During the ten days of the diet, I was energetic during the day and slept like a baby at night. I lost a few pounds and noticed a decrease in my belly fat. My mindset shifted. Now I’m eating more apples and trying to pay attention to what else goes into my mouth. I’m monitoring the thoughts in my head. I’m thinking about Shakespeare.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Funny how we absorb — the good, the bad, emotions, behaviors — such is life. Things subconsciously stick. Bad things happen, I get it. But we can make choices in handling those experiences that are beyond our control. We can surround ourselves with whatever we want to absorb.
You want to be a better writer? Surround yourself with words.
Read above your usual level and absorb the techniques of the experts. Absorb their words, sentences, paragraphs, style, and structure — details of time and place, character, dialogue and gesture — inspiration and imagination, understanding of the human condition and more. Name it and notice it.
This April I’ve been devouring memoirs. Maybe you’re looking for something to read next.
This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession is the debut of Cameron Dezen Hammon. On page one, Hammon takes the stage at a suburban megachurch to sing at a funeral for a teenaged girl. Her cell phone buzzes in the pocket of her dress. It’s the man she might love, not her husband and father of her daughter. And from the opening scene, Hammon’s honesty and bravery hooked me. She grapples with misogyny in religion, infidelity in marriage, and doubt in faith. I couldn’t stop turning pages, and I can’t stop thinking about this book.
Educated by Tara Westover had been on my to-read list for a couple of years. I listened to it on Audible, but I wish I had a copy. Born to Mormon survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Westover was 17 the first time she stepped into a classroom on the campus of BYU. The following passage strikes at the heart of this book and the ideology of Westover’s childhood. This conversation is the steppingstone she needs to further education—at Cambridge, then Harvard.
“By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in a room next to the kitchen. This caused a kind of crisis in me. My love of music and my desire to study it had been compatible with my idea of what a woman is. My love of history and politics and world affairs was not, and yet they called to me. A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester. ‘If you were a woman,’ I asked, ‘would you still study law?’
Josh didn’t look up. ‘If I were a woman,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t want to study it.’
‘But you’ve talked about nothing but law school for as long as I’ve known you,’ I said. ‘It’s your dream. Isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ he admitted, ‘but it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.’ He smiled at me as if I knew what he were talking about, and I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds, we were in agreement.
Then, ‘But what if you were a woman and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?’
Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, ‘I’d know something was wrong with me.’
Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club was a trudge for me. There are funny and heartbreaking parts. I enjoyed Karr’s vocabulary and sentences and images, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel compelled to turn pages. In connection with the other two memoirs, all three authors goes through tough injustices. Hammon and Westover both triumph and learn something about themselves. As for Karr, I prefer her book The Art of Memoir, especially if you’re interested in writing one.
A couple of weeks ago, I read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, and I’m one chapter short of finishing her 1995 bestselling memoir The Liars’ Club now. As the Peck Professor of Literature and Memoir at Syracuse University, she offers expert tips and provides an appendix of must-read memoirs. The list is so worth the purchase for those interested in studying the genre.
In Chapter 19, “Old School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr encourages intellectual enterprises to keep you studying the craft of writing. Here are some of the tools she uses to learn from mentor texts. Some of these include writing longhand. She says it will slow you down as typing can’t.
Keep a notebook, where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose. Nothing will teach you of great writers’ choices better. Plus, you can carry your inspiration around in compact form.
Write reviews or criticism for an online blog or a magazine. It will discipline you to find evidence for your opinions and make you a crisper thinker.
Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions.
Write out longhand on 3×5” index cards quotes you come across, writer’s name on the left, source and page on the right. Karr has thousands of these from which she cobbles up lectures.
Memorize poems when you’re stuck.
Write longhand letters to your complicated characters or even to the dead. You’ll learn more about voice by writing letters, how you arrange yourself different ways for each audience, than in a year of classes.
Number Five spoke loudest to me. Funny how I can still remember chunks of verse from days gone by. I memorized the “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost in the eighth grade for my English class. Anytime I take another look at that poem, the words come flooding back. When I taught sophomores, I memorized Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” funeral oration from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. And when I taught juniors, I memorized Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy. Because the students had been tasked to memorize, I wanted to prove I could do it. I loved to show them a three-year-old’s ability to memorize, too. Here’s a toddler’s version of “Litany” by Billy Collins.
Here’s one I’m working on, at Mary Karr’s suggestion and just because I love it:
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
by e.e. cummings
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
Sometimes I sit with Maya Angelou. Dr. Maya Angelou. I mean, I sit on my couch with my laptop in my lap, my left knee bent, my left heel tucked under my right butt cheek, and Maya Angelou on YouTube (three and a half minutes below). She is probably the wisest, most accessible, most inspirational person I know. God rest her soul.
I discovered Angelou’s 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings maybe just five or six years ago, and this book catapulted into the status of my all-time favorite. Since then, I’ve reread it a few times, as much for Angelou’s style as the strength of her story. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. She would go on to thrive against all odds. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins Angelou’s seven-volume autobiographical series. I still have four to go.
The Heart of a Woman (1981), fourth in the series, follows Angelou from 1957-1962, from California to New York City, Cairo to Ghana. She arrives in New York as a singer/dancer, joins the Harlem Writers Guild, becomes a civil rights activist, and raises her teenaged son. Angelou is the epitome of determination, only one of the reasons I find myself sitting with her.
Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) is a series of essays, a quick little read, published between her fifth and sixth memoirs. She opens up about her marriages, sensuality, sexuality—what it means to be human, American, and a black American. I sit with her in part due to her honesty.
A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) is the sixth of the series, and once more the title refers back to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” This volume begins as Maya Angelou returns from Africa to the US to work with Malcolm X. As she arrives, she learns that Malcom X has been assassinated, and violence in Watts explodes. She meets Martin Luther King, Jr., who asks her to become his coordinator in the north, and then he is assassinated. A Song Flung Up to Heaven ends as Maya Angelou begins to write the first sentences of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “What you looking at me for. I didn’t come to stay.”
Still on my to-read list:
Gather Together in My Name (1974, volume two) follows Maya as a single, teenaged mother sliding down the social ladder into poverty and crime.
Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976, volume three) spans the years of 1949-1955, Angelou’s early twenties and her struggles to support her son, form meaningful relationships, and establish herself in the entertainment world.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986, volume five) recounts Angelou’s years in Accra, Ghana between 1962-1965 and her return to the United States. Racism and the journey continue to be themes.
Mom & Me & Mom (2013, volume seven) was published shortly before Angelou’s 85th birthday and focuses on her relationship with her mother Vivian Baxter. In earlier volumes (the ones I’ve read anyway), Baxter remains an enigma of sorts, and this final volume fills some gaps. Even though it’s still on my to-read list, I’m inspired that Angelou continued to write until the end of her life. Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86.
Are you interested in diversifying your reading experiences? Here’s a list of 10 Black Authors Everyone Should Read. Let’s agree to add Paul Laurence Dunbar and make it eleven. I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Have you ever read a book that you loved so much? Except there is almost no way to adequately explain. Like if you tried, people might think there’s something wrong with your brain. For me, that’s Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.
Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away to escape his father’s house and an Oedipal prophecy and to search for his long-lost mother and sister. His name isn’t Kafka, by the way. He travels incognito.
Kafka’s story alternates with a man named Nakata. After a childhood accident, this sixtyish-year-old simpleton lives on a government subsidy and communicates with cats, literally.
Add in fish and leeches raining from the sky, Johnnie Walker—collector of cat souls, Colonel Sanders—a seedy pimp, and some graphic sex scenes, and well, that’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a surreal story within a story within a story, laden with purposeful references to pop culture and literature, music and history. No one is who they seem. Most detail serves a metaphorical purpose. Jewels of wisdom abound.
In my eyes, the novel is a guide to life.
Both Kafka and Nakata have companions who appear out of nowhere to help. How many times have you felt an insurmountable problem, only to realize that there is someone willing to help you? I know I have, over and over, and our connections with others are vital to life. Our truest, most intimate connections have the power to transform us. We have the power to choose those connections, or we can live lonely, miserable, dysfunctional lives. It’s that simple.
There’s a message here about a “persistent, inward-moving spirit” (329). I think that means that we flourish though self-reflection, knowing ourselves, and confronting our own souls. Yes, you can lie to everyone around you, but you’re only lying to yourself. It’s so easy to spot the faults of others, but what about your own? As much as your friends can help you, ultimately you must rely on yourself and what’s inside you for courage and honesty, motivation and strength. If you can overcome your own fear, bias, and anger, you will be the strongest person in the world.
There’s another message about maintaining a “pliant, youthful sort of curiosity” (329). What do you like? What interests you? Are you open to new things, new people, new ideas? Kids are naturally more curious, naturally more accepting of differences, naturally willing to try new things. As we age, we become more stubborn and consequently more stuck in our ways, but a childlike curiosity keeps life interesting. Our first inclination might tell us, I would hate a book like that, by a Japanese author, where absurd things happen. But all the absurdity serves a purpose if you take some time to consider it. As they say, never judge a book by its cover.
In the end, I don’t think it spoils anything to say, Kafka’s metamorphosis is complete, and he has all the tools to bloom and grow. Life teaches us all about transformation when we keep our hearts and minds open. And I don’t know about you, but I’m happy that I’m not my past self.
I admit, this book might not be for everyone, but then again, maybe it is.
Shout out to my friend Barbara over at ALTAIR 5G Theatre for bestowing upon me the Penable Award. Barbara wanted to know, “What’s your trick to regaining confidence in your life?” And this is it: intimate connections, using what I have inside (my heart, my brain, and my guts), and the childlike curiosity to keep on going because amazing things are still ahead.
(P.S. Barbara, salty, except I do love my wine, and about that song, here you go…)
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
That’s Nick Carraway in the first sentence of The Great Gatsby. Last spring break I lounged on the beach with a beverage in one hand and Gatsby in the other. “All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” I read. People judge, I thought. Nick refrains because his father said so, or he tries. I remember my mother trying, too. She would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” And Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.
Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.” I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How poetic! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.
That March day, I soaked up the Florida sun, snapped a few photos, and tapped a few phrases into my phone. In three sentences, I attempted to be Fitzgerald. It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a wave of sparkling sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically on the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.
Back in the classroom, I picked another passage for my students to try, one I’ve used before. “That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
Thomas Miller was one of my juniors in AP Language and Composition last year. His mother is Vietnamese, and his given name is Thien. He was a funny kid, tardy almost every day, but he knew I had a soft spot for him. Kids like Thomas inspire me, and he graduated last week. In response to the Gatsby passage, he wrote, “That’s my Vietnam—not the jungles or the fields or the cramped southern cities but the soothingly tranquil rains of my youth and the cold dawns and quiet afternoons in the murky light and the gathering of family members drawn by enticing banquets on clean floors. I am part of that, a little energetic with the feel of those wet summers, a little slovenly from the year I spent in a towering townhome in Saigon where townhomes rule the cityscape. I see now that Aunt Suzy, Mimi, Bambi, Vivi, Titi—they all represent a period of equilibrium and peace in my life. That’s my Vietnam.”