Monthly Archives: September 2017

Essential Emily & Marilynne

“Writing should always be exploratory,” writes Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead) in her NY Times essay, “Toward Essentials.”

“There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express.”

I couldn’t agree with or love this idea more. One writes to understand, to deepen understanding, to discover. But, like “wrestling with an angel,” it isn’t easy. It takes discipline, curiosity, creativity, time.

It’s no surprise, then, that Robinson’s essay begins with a reference to Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is known for its rigorous compression of language and simultaneously sublime expansion of meaning.

Living in the 19th century with her family in Amherst, Dickinson stripped everything but what she felt was absolutely essential from her poetry, including conventions such as punctuation marks and proper nouns, while at the same time adding quirky signatures such as the dash and capital letters, additions that built layers of meaning into her sparse lines.

It is astonishing to think that, in the throes of inspiration, Dickinson jotted these poems on the flaps of envelopes and the backs of shopping lists found in the flotsam of her daily life (the “gorgeous nothings“).

Robinson cites Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain – is wider than the Sky.” I looked it up and reread it, having forgotten it. It’s just one of hundreds of astonishingly sly and intelligent poems that she wrote in her lifetime.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Comparing the brain to the sky, the sea, and to God, in well under 100 words, Dickinson makes a clever argument in which the human mind is greater than natural and divine wonders, while also dependent upon both. If the brain had nothing to contemplate, it would be as dull as the world around it. Syllables and sounds may differ, but they don’t exist without one another.

Did Dickinson set out to write a poem comparing humanity to skies, seas, Gods and sounds? Doubtful. But through writing, and wrestling, and dancing with words, she did.

A Wrinkle in Time

Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time is one of my all time favorite books. I know I’m not alone. But while reading it with my 9 year old this month, I was surprised to find that despite the book being very important to me, I had forgotten nearly everything in its pages.

What I remembered: time/space travel, a very smart child named Charles Wallace, some strong weather at the beginning, a missing father, a malevolent (I think!) force called IT.

What I had forgotten: the word, tesseract, which for some reason, my mother gave me as a name when I was little. Also forgotten: how sophisticated many of the words in the book actually are. And the fact that Calvin likes not only Meg but also her mother.

Which made me remember: we used to read books like A Wrinkle in Time on our own time and without incident.  Which isn’t to say that we understood all of what we read. Rereading the book today, I know it isn’t possible that I understood the book deeply. Clearly, I didn’t remember it well.

But, it sort of didn’t matter. I thought I read it, and I really loved it. And, I don’t think we were expected to understand what we read all the way through back then. Instead, we were expected to read a lot. To just read. Whatever we wanted, and as often as possible. It was totally fine for us to pick up a book and put it down, only to pick it up months or even years later and resume as if no time had passed at all.

That’s why my mother thought nothing of giving me a copy of Jane Eyre when I was 10. And again when I was 12. And then again when I was 15, at which point I could finally make sense of the first pages and persevered all the way to the end.

Books were our wrinkle in time. We’d open a portal to one and walk through. Stay a while in its world and then exit on the other side, changed.

Raising and Caring for our Little Adults

I loved Julie Lythcott-Haines’ How to Raise an Adult and had the good fortune to hear her speak last spring when she visited Charlotte. The book, like Julie herself, offers straight-talk to parents and teachers who take the responsibility of preparing future generations for whatever awaits them very seriously.

In a nutshell, she tells us to give our kids more space and time to become themselves without our constant interference. Sitting amid an audience of hundreds of parents, I couldn’t help but notice that there was not a person, including myself, who was not laughing and cringing all the way through her talk.

As a dean at Stanford, Lythcott-Haines saw first hand how easily thrown freshmen were in the face of any challenge. After being “overparented” — and therefore never having to do anything completely for themselves while also never feeling total independence or pride in the wake of their achievements — these high flying young people with high GPA’s were having a ton of trouble acclimating to college life. They were — are — suffering from acute anxiety, depression, and worse. Having accomplished their parents’ and often their own dreams, they were finding the reality to be both a bit underwhelming and somehow also overwhelming.

Frank Bruni’s editorial today, “The Real Campus Scourge,” adds an important layer to the discussion about how we are preparing young people for the places, situations, and demands they will confront. I read it just after talking with my niece, a newly minted college freshman who described finding it very hard, in these early days of freshman year, to eat regular meals, find people to connect with, even work out at the gym.

In his essay, Bruni hits the nail on the head: college, at least at first, is lonely. That college freshmen feel alone has nothing to do with the way they were parented or the fact that some may be like snowflakes that melt in the heat. Says Bruni, “In a survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association last year, more than 60 percent said that they had “felt very lonely” in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”

Those numbers are pretty staggering, but what they really confirm is simply the fact that being alone is, for most of us, lonely. Also, people leaving home, if they are loved and lucky, miss home. Years ago this was true and it is still true today.

Tomorrow, I’m spending some of Labor Day collecting things for care packages for my five nieces and nephews who are currently in college. I wish I had the time and the funds to send one to each of my past students, too. This blog post will have to serve in the place of those hundreds of boxes full of symbolic hugs that I would send out tomorrow if I could.

It’s not easy to raise — or be — an adult. But it’s also not something any of us have to do all by ourselves.